David Lynch Plays It 'Straight' ; Midwestern Charm

Article excerpt

Starting today, the biggest surprise of this year's Cannes film festival will be stirring up talk in theaters. David Lynch, known for ultraviolent movies like "Blue Velvet" and surreal TV fare like "Twin Peaks," has found still another way to give audiences a jolt of astonishment: He's made a G-rated picture for the Walt Disney Company, spinning a tale so kind and gentle that it makes his previous career seem like a brilliantly filmed nightmare from which he's finally awakened.

In short, "The Straight Story" is a major turnaround from a filmmaker who has earned international acclaim as a chronicler of dark, disturbing dreams. But has this hugely original artist really changed course as abruptly as it appears? Or has he simply found a new vocabulary to express his longtime taste for extremes - directing a picture that's radically sweet, daringly goodhearted, humane, and compassionate to the point of extravagance?

Based on real events, "The Straight Story" centers on an ornery old man named Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth in a performance that should loom very large when Oscar time rolls around. Alvin lives with his daughter in rural Iowa, where their uneventful routine is interrupted by news that his brother, Lyle, has become ill.

The brothers haven't spoken since a quarrel 10 years earlier, and Alvin feels a flood of regret when he hears of Lyle's misfortune. His first impulse is to pay Lyle an overdue visit. While Alvin is no longer able to drive a car, he wants to make the trip on his own. The solution: Hitching a supply wagon to the tractor of his rider- style lawnmower, he sets off for his brother's Wisconsin home at a speed so slow that the 300-mile-plus journey will take several weeks of solitary travel - if the aging engine manages to get him there at all.

The speed of Alvin's lawnmower sets the tone for the movie. In some ways, this is the flip side of Lynch's last picture, "Lost Highway," which was as fast and hallucinatory as "The Straight Story" is slow and lucid. Don't think the movie lacks humor or drama, though. Alvin's gradual voyage brings him into temporary contact with all sorts of people, most of them amazed at the audacity of his journey yet eager to help him reach the finish line. …