When you hear that an upcoming film has generated a positive "buzz," that usually means one thing--studios expect it to make money and win positive critical reactions and a fistful of Oscar nominations.
Jocelyn Moorhouse's multi-generational comic-romantic epic How To Make an American Quilt has created so much advance excitement that Universal bumped its release date from mid-November to early October--a rather uncommon trajectory, since many films are forever postponed because the studios are nervous about their reception.
Featuring a young female star fresh off glowing reviews (Winona Ryder from her Oscar-nominated performance in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women remake) and a cast of brilliant supporting actresses who were put out to TV-movie pasture around the age of 50 (Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Kate Nelligan), How To Make an American Quilt is supposed to be the "women's film" of the fall, a story that will, for an hour and 45 minutes, wrench the American movie perspective from gun-toting, wisecracking male heroes.
The scorching trials that this cast undergoes are purported to be the kind that women will especially respond to, since they are a safari of the emotions, a feet-first foray into infidelity, marital commitment, sisterly betrayal, menstruation, and menopause. The audience around me at American Quilt's screening was mostly women past childbearing age, and they responded to the film with a mixture of hearty laughter and puzzled silence.
That's the problem, you see, in trying to make a film aimed at what a specific audience "wants." You lose the impulse to seek universal relevance in the characters' dilemmas, the thrilling moment of emotional connection that anyone who buys a ticket can make, and rely on strictly demographic ideas of what a particular audience wants. Inevitably, you emerge with a bouquet of cliches and stereotypes.
How To Make an American Quilt trivializes itself in the way the dramatic stories of tumultuous male-female relationships--here told unflaggingly from the female perspective--are piled one on top of another, the gut-wrenching emotions of the characters played interchangeably for grand drama or comic relief, depending on the mood of writer Jane Anderson's script. "You know the hardest thing about being a woman?" Nelligan asks a beleaguered Ryder. "Having women friends." With director Moorhouse's occasionally lighthearted attitude toward profound personal betrayals, you can't help but view her narration of these women's lives as weirdly amused, even belittling.
The story's premise is a fairly predictable anthology of sour romances played out against the backdrop of several generations. Graduate student Finn (Ryder) has just received a marriage proposal from her long-time boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney from Living in Oblivion). Excited but scared, she decides to spend the summer at the pastoral, orchard-surrounded home of her grandmother Hy (Burstyn) and great-aunt Glady Joe (Bancroft), a place where she used to dawdle underneath the great wooden table while Hy, Glady Joe, and their gaggle of women friends and relatives (Nelligan, Maya Angelou, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons) gossip and stitch as part of the county's largest quilting bee.
The brief opening sequence, in which a little girl sits underneath the sunlight-touched fabric of a quilt as a dozen shadowy hands dart and sweep over her head, is filmed as a delightful fantasy, while Ryder narrates breathlessly about the first women who ignited her imagination.
Finn returns to this oaken, leatherbound, serene home as an adult to work on her graduate thesis and mull over Sam's marriage request. The women she encounters from her childhood are quite a bit older than she remembers, and more determined than ever to have some kind of influence on her romantic destiny.
This is precisely the same emotional soil tilled by Wayne Wang's 1994 The Joy Luck Club, except the generations of women portrayed in that epic soap opera entertained far more serious personal issues than, "Gosh, he's cute, but is he really the one for me?" Beaten within an inch of their lives, persecuted by governments, torn apart by wars, their weary tales seemed repetitiously tear-jerking until the pampered viewer realized this was the autobiography of so many Asian women, battered down to a quiet stoicism that was the closest thing to heroism in a world of no choices.
By contrast, Winona Ryder's character in How To Make an American Quilt seems rather spoiled. She is the daughter of divorced parents (seen briefly in flashback), a young woman who has been forced--like many of the rest of us--into mapping out her life with an absence of strong examples. Yet she's hardly suffered from a dearth of opportunities. Unfortunately, the film takes her premature world-weariness for granted and never recounts for us hard details about her past. She is cast as the pliant student, the young woman awed by the funny and sad tales of her elders, and the gender restrictions of their eras seem totalitarian compared to the trifling ills she must encounter as part of her professional career.
Ryder is less an actress than a reactress, a beautiful young pro who earned a great deal of undeserved acclaim because of her role in last year's Little Women. Her angry encounter with the book-burning Kirsten Dunst in that film, as well as her hesitant romance with Gabriel Byrne, were melodramatic exercises in the same key, but An American Quilt requires even less of her, which is why she'll probably earn even more praise.
The film's most laudable contribution might be the resurrection of Ellen Burstyn's career. She is one of the subtler graduates of Lee Strasberg's legendary New York Actors Studio, and arguably the greatest film actress of the '70s (The King of Marvin Gardens, The Exorcist). Her own tale of romantic sorrow, which involves scenery-chewing sister Anne Bancroft, is one of the few that doesn't call upon a different actress to play her younger self. As the pot-smoking, adulterous Hy, Burstyn makes you yearn for a film dedicated just to her character.
For that matter, any of the fictional lives of the older characters would make a more compelling story than Ryder's rather conventional contemporary man-trouble. How To Make an American Quilt will be praised for its proliferation of post-menopausal women, but the old gals are really only instruments to allow us to appreciate the menu choices of a comely spring chicken.
Perhaps most annoying is how the film's clumsy title is so ill-served by the action, just as the graduate thesis of Ryder's character--the communal rituals of tribal women around the world--is a high-falutin' contrivance to enrich the theme of female solidarity and competition. There is never a convincing attempt to link either the small-town quilting bee or the occasional mention of multicultural female rituals, so the viewer can only chalk up their mention to an attempt by the filmmakers to flavor this one-dimensional saga with a multi-culti bite.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse made her cinematic debut three years ago with the hilarious Proof, a dark comedy from Australia that painted a vaguely homoerotic triangle of a blind photographer (Hugo Weaving), his sadistic maidservant (Genevieve Picot), and an outsider-rogue (Russell Crowe) who insinuates himself into their lives. It was a prickly, completely original drama of dependency, although it had little to do with "women's issues" and a whole lot to do with the stubborn craving in all of us for ego gratification. Although dominated by men, Proof had an anarchic view of relationships that suggested intelligent viewers of both genders would appreciate its nuances of character.
How To Make an American Quilt, however, is a purely commercial bid, a ploy to please the same audiences that turned Fried Green Tomatoes and the aforementioned Joy Luck Club into box-office hits. Moorhouse exhibits the same intuitive attention to visual detail that she did in Proof. Case in point--the flashback sequence in which Lois Smith's young counterpart, Samantha Mathis, falls in love with a boy who worships her swimming ability. Moorhouse photographs the pair of them through a woodsy trek, then strands the smitten boy until he ventures upon Mathis, standing at the edge of a rocky cliff over a creek. Moorhouse films her arms, then her legs, then her feet with veins bulging to be released, until the girl finally springs into the water.
The fact that Moorhouse chose How To Make an American Quilt as her next project suggests an honest desire on her part to delve deep into the experiences of women. Heaven knows that's something more Hollywood filmmakers should pursue. But Moorhouse seems to believe there's a certain emotional shading in relationship dramas to which women will respond. She's layered her film with pivotal moments in the lives of conscientious women and their faithless men. Now it's up to American movie audiences to sniff out the authentic bits from this slick concoction of pre-fab wisdom.
How To Make an American Quilt. Universal Pictures. Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft. Written by Jane Anderson, based on the novel by Whitney Otto. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Opens October 6.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.