If this is supposed to be good Steinbeck, Judge Dylan Charles will turn west at Eden next time.
Our reviews of The Complete James Dean Collection (published June 6th, 2005) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Dramas (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity, too—in a net of good and evil, and it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal."—John Steinbeck
East of Eden, based on the Steinbeck novel of the same name, takes place during the turn of the last century, following three generations of the Trask family as they make their way west and seek their fortunes in California, but this is no easy trek. Cathy (Jane Seymour, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), one of the most evil characters in American literature, plagues the Trasks; the financial problems and wars of the times have an equally unpleasant impact on their lives. One of the greatest American novels is turned into one of the most mediocre American miniseries.
The hardest thing to review is mediocrity. By its definition, it inspires no great feeling. East of Eden is a near-perfect example of this. It didn't enrage me, so I feel no need to skewer it and publicly shame it, like a puppy that chews up the remote to my DVD player, forcing me to watch movies on a broken-down Playstation, nor does it make me weep at its great beauty, like the Grand Canyon or an unopened package of Mallomars. It's just there, plugging along, dutifully recreating East of Eden, like a literate Little Engine that Could.
It's not always mediocre. The one bright spot, the one thing that made me sit up and take notice, was Jane Seymour as the sociopathic, manipulative, and generally vile Cathy. In spite of her evil ways, Cathy manages to string along everyone around her, a task that Seymour handles with ease. Whether she's winding Adam around her little finger or running a whorehouse with sadistic glee, Seymour takes a role that could have become cartoonishly evil and makes Cathy a believable, vibrant creature worthy of the audience's hatred and admiration. She's worthy of Steinbeck, and that's high enough praise I think.
That about does it for high points. After Seymour's Cathy, the rest of the series drops and then levels off into one, long plateau of dull—except for the beginning, which is almost unwatchably bad. They made the questionable choice of having Timothy Bottoms and Bruce Boxleitner playing their characters in their teens. This involved a lot of bad wigs and even worse acting, with Bottoms taking the lead in that regard. His character, Adam, is supposed to be a gentle and sensitive fellow of around 16. Bottoms acted a bit more like a dimwitted manchild, an effect further exacerbated by the fact that he was a 30-year-old man playing a teenager.
Once everyone grows up, everything goes back up to bland rather than painful. The problem is that Adam is so mild, so inoffensive and meek, that watching his character is like eating an entire brick of Velveeta or a vat of unseasoned, lukewarm porridge. By the end of things, you're gagging and wishing for a spice. Oh, sure, Cathy will pop up occasionally, but for long stretches it's just mild-mannered Adam making his way through the world.
The damnable thing is that it's not a bad movie, just one that fails to make the most of its source material and languishes in a sea of average mediocrity. It made me doubt the book so much that I went to fetch it and found that my copy has a picture of Timothy Bottoms on it, in full costume and sprawled in a meadow. This miniseries has even tainted my book!
As for the DVD, the only thing worth noting is the interview with Jane Seymour, who seems to have loved playing the role of Cathy. It's insightful and a good extra. It's no surprise to me that it comes from Jane Seymour, just as the best part of the film came from her as well.
East of Eden is guilty of making me doubt John Steinbeck, a crime punishable by death.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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