Dennis Quaid, the noted motion-picture actor, turns director this week with the Turner-produced TV movie Everything That Rises, in which he also stars. The task has not found him wanting. If not quite the press-stopping debut of a major new cinema visionary, or even of the next Robert Redford, it is solid, unshowy, intelligent work, and so clearly heartfelt that to point out its few false notes would be churlish, not to say picayune. Written by Mark Spragg (who has Gross Anatomy hanging way to the back of his closet), this story of a Montana ranch family weathering heavy bad mojo — money troubles, a crippling accident, communication breakdown, bulldozers — and of a young boy’s dream of rodeo glory and fatherly approval is sentimental, old-fashioned and predictable in its outcome (uplifting, duh); but given that it is essentially a "family film," and therefore bound by certain reasonable conventions — children, after all, don’t need their time wasted with stories where everything goes to shit, The End — such qualities may be rightly considered virtues. This is not to say that the material is prophylactically bland, or unnaturally sweet: The film is funny without straining for laughs and moving without begging for sympathy, and trouble when it comes is troubling indeed, and almost cruelly matter-of-fact. (Animal lovers of a sensitive nature might want to arrive about 10 minutes late.) "There’s nothing busted on him that won’t mend," Dennis tells wife, Mare Winningham, after their son takes a bad spill, and while the line serves both as ironic foreshadowing of a worse spill to come and as a measure of daddy’s hardness, it is also the film’s philosophical through-line: Most anything can be survived. And is.
Quaid, whose conventional good looks and jock charisma tended in his departed youth to type him as a standard leading man — though the hint behind his eyes and at the edges of his grin of something messily combustible kept him from ever turning, for better or worse, into Tom Cruise — has been liberated by middle age from narrow Hollywood expectation. Now, having made his obligatory run at an action picture (Switchback, you remember), he seems poised to begin from scratch what posterity may rate his actual career. His role here, as a man whose impulses war constantly with his habits, suits him well. As his missus and moral anchor, Winningham is quietly marvelous, doing ordinary things with ordinary grace. Harve Presnell, who dropped off movieland radar not long after The Unsinkable Molly Brown and popped back on along about Fargo, steps lightly around a potentially hazardous turn as the crusty but wise ranch hand Garth (whom everyone calls, unfortunately, "old man"). And young Ryan Merriman, who was a regular on The Mommies and The Pretender (jobs he has the luxury of years to live down), and whose story this mostly is, has such an easy and complete command of make-believe as to suggest that actors are born and not made. Good show.
Mira Nair, director of Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala, is at the helm of Showtime’s My Own Country, based on Dr. Abraham Verghese’s memoir of his years treating AIDS patients in small-town Johnson City, Tennessee, when the disease was still breaching public consciousness (and before it faded into the wallpaper of mortality). Nair, working with writers Jim Leonard Jr. and Sooni Taraporevala, a past collaborator, does a stylish job that can’t quite disguise the fact that there is no story here, only a collection of incidents in search of a plot — real life ties your hands like that, running on messily as it does. (This is why the old Hollywood biopics are full of lies.) Some hay is made from the unraveling of the doctor’s marriage, but even though it really happened, it has the ring here of a desperate dramatic convenience, and one more asserted than demonstrated. Likewise, Verghese’s declared rootlessness — he’s an Indian born in Ethiopia — never blossoms into anything more than an occasional complaint; neither is his growing understanding of the disease and its victims actually felt. He makes some friends. He treats some patients. He loses some patients. He loses his patience. He writes a paper for The New England Journal of Medicine. He gets drunk and plays the guitar. He kisses his nurse but runs away just when things look to get interesting.
That the film amounts to something less than the sum of its parts is, nevertheless, not completely fatal, TV being constitutionally a place of unresolved episodes and special reports, of life slices. Verghese’s cases, though they come to little more of a point than that people are often decent even when you don’t expect them to be and that there’s nothing like a fatal disease to get you in touch with life, are not in themselves without suspense, and past that, there is a pure pleasure in watching good actors at work. Here we get Hal Holbrook, Swoosie Kurtz, Marisa Tomei (who worked for Nair in The Perez Family) and Glenne Headly, who makes her merest breath describe her character, and whose presence is reason enough to tune in. As Verghese, Naveen Andrews, who played in the director’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, is absolutely fine, though, as I say, he gets the short end of the script. Finally, the doctor leaves town for the sake of his marriage. And we’re done.
Susan Stern’s amused, amazed Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour, airing this week over PBS, is the second TV show in just over a month to take as its subject the world’s most popular toy. (Twice each second, we learn, a Barbie doll is sold somewhere on Earth.) Inevitably, Barbie Nation covers much of the same ground as did ABC’s slicker The Secret Life of Barbie — made with the staff and deep pockets of a big-city news department — filming children at play, using vintage ads to show how Barbie has moved with the times, or no more than a few steps behind them, and limning the life of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Inc., and the brains behind the poupÃ©e formerly known as "the famous teenage fashion model doll." But where the first film considered at length the question of Barbie’s effect on little girls — whether she represents an ideal that is not only impossible but ill-advised — Barbie Nation celebrates her lingering effect on adults, with that community of grown-ups who for one reason or another cannot let her go, or who have come back to her, either as a talisman of a happier past, or a project to brighten the present, or a means by which to imagine a better future.
There is, indeed, something strangely utopian about Barbiedom — a fan named Allen maintains a heavily peopled (dolled?) community called Heavenly Valley, where Barbie and Ken and their various plastic pals party down in an eternal summer of daiquiris, firewalking and mutual support: "It’s very open, there aren’t a lot of rules," he says. "It’s just love, they love each other." And each to her own utopia: While dealer Sandi sees Barbie as "a very wholesome kind of individual that would never have had a drug or alcohol problem," Barbara and Caroline, who have fitted their dolls with nipples — with nipple rings! — and genitalia, have created for themselves a vicarious kinky paradise ("Maybe he could be lying on his back and she could step on him with a high-heeled shoe") where everything is permitted and nobody gets hurt. Watching this slightly mad parade of collectors, dealers, costumed conventioneers and rec-room fantasists, one might well think, "Loser . . . loser . . . another loser . . . loser . . . now there’s a loser . . . loser" and so on, but by hour’s end, the whole business seems lovely and touching instead. It’s only a longing for beauty, after all, that drives the Barbiephiles, a desire to make the world a bit more marvelous. Is that bad? You could argue against the aesthetic merit of the chosen objet, but really, it all starts to look pretty . . . proactive. Healthy. Admirable. No worse than model railroading. Who — besides Ruth Handler — would have thought that this would be the stuff dreams are made of?
© Robert Lloyd 1998 and 2011