We are not in Lynch's world, and, despite several pieces of stylistic evidence to the contrary, there is no way we're going to enter Lynch's world in The Straight Story.
The first film that Lynch has ever done in which he has no hand in the writing process, The Straight Story tells the true story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man who rides a lawnmower six weeks across two states to visit his ailing brother, Lyle. If this sounds like The Lawnmower Man as done by country hicks, then you are still thinking in Lynch mode and I advise you to get out of that mindset. With Mary Sweeny and John Roach behind the narrative helm, The Straight Story ends up being the simple story. The long, drawn out, exceedingly boring simple story. There is no small-town satire there. There is no extraordinarily brilliant insight. There is just two hours of a guy on a lawnmower handing out wisdom like a teller hands out change at a tollbooth.
As weak of a narrative as that to begin with, the wisdom that Alvin Straight doles out is the kind of five-and-dime wisdom you find written in slightly different words on the inside of fortune cookies. Seventy-three years, and it appears all Alvin has learned is what one could learn by reading Confucius in a philosophy course. He tells his story to about every passerby, including a runaway, a bunch of cyclists, and a family's home that he stops at when his lawnmower breaks down.
What happens with The Straight Story is that you get all of the stylistic benefits of a Lynch film with none of the narrative ones. Lynch chose to direct his long-time friend and coworker Mary Sweeny's (a member of Lynch's production team for almost as long as Kyle MacLachlan) script, and although Sweeny may be able to edit someone else's tale to perfection, she is not able to put her own talents to use on her work. The Straight Story could have been shorter, better scripted, and still have gotten its point across. Yet Sweeny refused to make the necessary cuts, and, without the surreal world that Lynch normally creates for us, there is nothing there to keep our interest for the duration of the film.
To Lynch's and the cast's credit, both Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek turn out incredible performances, especially considering that the roles they are given in The Straight Story are crash courses in subtlety. And, perhaps if I fit the target demographic of a person getting in on a senior discount and had never seen every single other Lynch feature aside from Eraserhead, then I might have actually enjoyed this film. But I am not of that demographic, and Farnsworth's eerie resemblance in both looks and mannerisms to Lynch's perennial favorite Jack Nance (who died after the completion of Lynch's previous feature, Lost Highway, and has been making films with Lynch since Lynch's feature debut, Eraserhead) made the line "Wrapped in plastic" echo in my head one too many times.
The Straight Story just is simply a painful film for any Lynch fan to watch. You can see, with the overlighting of certain exteriors and the tendency to use natural lighting on interiors, that Lynch is struggling within the mold of a G-rated story that isn't his own. Lynch seems to feel that he owes a major debt to Mary Sweeny, and seems to have been willing to trap himself within a movie like The Straight Story in order to repay it.
Let's just hope this evens the scale.
In Theaters: Wednesday 3rd November 1999
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 85 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, Sissy Spacek as Rose Straight, Jane Galloway Heitz as Dorothy, Straight's Next-Door Neighbor, Joseph A. Carpenter as Bud, Donald Wiegert as Sig, Tracey Maloney as Nurse, Dan Flannery as Doctor Gibbons, Ed Grennan as Pete, Jack Walsh as Apple, Gil Pearson as Sun Ray Tours Bus Driver, Barbara June Patterson as Woman on Bus, Everett McGill as Tom the John Deere Dealer, James Cada as Danny Riordan, Clermont Resident, Sally Wingert as Darla Riordan, Clermont Resident, Barbara Kingsley as Janet Johnson, Clermont Resident, Jim Haun as Johnny Johnson, Clermont Resident, Kevin Farley as Harald Olsen, John Farley as Thorvald Olsen, Leroy Swadley as Bar Patron, Ralph Feldhacker as Farmer on Tractor, Harry Dean Stanton as Lyle Straight, Alvin's Brother, Anastasia Webb as Crystal, John Lordan as Priest
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