Except for Nicolas Cage, there's no leading man in movies today who suffers as exquisitely as Matthew Broderick. He's at his best when his characters are at their down-and-out lowest--struggling to hold onto some small shred of dignity while life is gleefully retching on them. He's a versatile actor, but when he writhes in pain and begs for mercy, he becomes a star.
In The Road to Wellville, he plays Will Lightbody, a young, turn-of-the-century red-meat-and-liquor lover whose marriage to a pretty young thing named Eleanor (Bridget Fonda) is falling apart after the death of their child. Eleanor is a repeat visitor to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a primitive version of a health spa, and she has convinced her better half that a trip there might heal both his stomach and his spirit--and, just maybe, their fragile union.
The Sanitarium is lorded over by Dr. Harvey Kellogg, a self-styled business magnate, medical expert, vegeterian, inventor, and all around legend. Anthony Hopkins plays him like a human Foghorn Leghorn--a towering tyrant barking homilies, threats, and grotesquely inappropriate prescriptions through a walrus mustache and big buck teeth. "What lurks within this steak," he proclaims, holding up a steak and a sack full of horse feces, "is no different than that which crawls inside this bag of barnyard dung!" Kellogg feeds on the loathing of the body, the urge for angelic cleanliness, that fueled the American upper classes a century ago. He proclaims sex an unnecessary mingling of infected fluids. ("An erection is a flagpole on your grave!") And he boasts of his colonic mastery like a proud parent giving birth to regular litters of turds. ("My own stools, sir, are gigantic, and have no more odor than a hot biscuit!")
There are other bizarre characters, including a would-be breakfast cereal entrepreneur named Charles Ossining (John Cusack); his rotund partner, a corrupt local scam artist named Bender (Michael Lerner); and Nurse Irene Graves (Traci Lind), a voluptuous young nurse at the sanitarium who gives our beleaguered hero frequent enemas and, in the process, wins his undying affection. And Kellogg has an adopted, estranged, deranged son named George (Dana Carvey) who never bathes and harbors a vague grudge against the old man--a filthy little goblin with brownish teeth who likes to loiter in the sanitarium's bathing rooms and "look at the nude ladies." He's a restless fellow who keeps vanishing from the main narrative, then reappearing to hurl hand-packed boxes of horseshit at the spa's denizens.
This last item best expresses what The Road to Wellville is about. Based on T. Coraghessen Boyle's well-received 1990 novel, the story is multilayered, with plenty of colorful faces and strange subplots, and they all weave together in what some reviewers call a Dickensian manner. But Boyle isn't a humanist, like Dickens, nor would he ever pretend to be. In interviews, he loves to note that novelists are like gods, creating and destroying worlds on a whim. He's less a highbrow provocateur than a literary droog; Boyle likes to see how much he can get away with, and when he forfeits any attempt at social relevance and falls back on his admittedly formidable arsenal of technical tricks, reading him is like getting caned with a giant pencil.
Alan Parker shares this sense of slightly bullying outrageousness. He goes all out with Road To Wellville, staging elaborate sequences that reveal how the sanitarium's primitive "health machines" work and pulling off appallingly funny gags involving heart attacks, electrocution, masturbation, painful erections, and pallid corpses. He feasts on food and vomit, beer and urine. The scene where Ossiling, Bender, and dirty George Kellogg eat 20 test batches of their newly-produced cereal is such an orgy of overindulgence that it makes the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke look like a midnight snack. In one spectacularly silly sequence, Parker dollies his camera in closeup past the watery, vibrating buttocks of naked men strapped into electric weight-loss belts.
There's so much of this that you get comfortable with it. You might even admire Parker's desire to push slapstick as far as it can go and still keep it funny; at its best, the film is like The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover as directed by Preston Sturges. Parker is reinventing the earliest form of comedy--the form that came about when the first caveman accidentally whizzed on the hairy toes of his best friend and doubled over laughing. The Road to Wellville is a comedy of degradation. It's a yowl of revolt against propriety, a fistful of sperm hurled in the face of bluenoses everywhere.
The film is tawdry fun when Parker hangs around the sanitarium, chronicling mishaps with machinery, the dictatorial rantings of Dr. Kellogg, and the carnal adventures of the Lightbodys (horny Will has a near-permanent erection from his program of electrical treatments and uses it on any female who'll have him; the sexually frustrated Eleanor and a friend visit a "clitoral stimulation" expert named Dr. Spitzvogel who "manipulates their wombs" and turns them into repeat customers).
But the subplot involving Ossining and Bender and their supposedly healthy breakfast cereal is redundant: Parker already scored points off greedy old capitalism, and made allusions to today's New Puritanism, health craze, and obsession with cheating death, back at the sanitarium. (Although I could have done without Dr. Kellogg shouting: "Stop the insanity!")
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The film is too long, uneven, and unfocused to add up to much. It looks the way Boyle's prose sounds: vigorous, colorful, and unapologetically profane. But it doesn't have the same magical conviction, the kind of faith in its own demented voice that can carry you over the bumps of social significance and into something like bliss. The last 20 minutes are so hastily slapped together that they feel desperate and pathetic. (In fairness, they're transcribed directly from Boyle, who had no idea how to end this messy story either.)
But the film's willingness to rub our noses in some of the most delightfully excremental comedy to come down the pike in ages is perversely refreshing. You have to wade through lots of misguided and dull stuff to get to the hilarity, but when it comes, it's brilliant--like the scene when Will Lightbody returns to the sanitarium after a Christmas night of binging on booze and home cooking, looking both nauseous and deliriously happy. Dr. Kellogg, dressed like Kris Kringle, gets in his face, bellowing reprimands, trying to shame him into toeing his gastronomic line, and Will, unable to contain himself, leans forward and pukes all over the good doctor's white cotton beard.
"Why, Mr. Lightbody," exclaims Dr. Kellogg, looking at the mess, sniffing the air, and never changing his expression. "I smell pickles...and relish!"
The Road to Wellville. Columbia Pictures. Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda, Anthony Hopkins, John Cusack. Written by Alan Parker, from T. Coraghessen Boyle's novel. Directed by Alan Parker. Now showing.