Judge Bill Treadway proves with this review that reviewers can get the blues too.
"There isn't enough peyote in the American Southwest to render scenes set in the feminist-collective ranch comprehensible or possible to endure"—Leonard Maltin
There was once an episode of The Odd Couple in which Oscar Madison cooked up his specialty, "Goop Mélange," and served it to an unsuspecting Felix. To Oscar, the dish was a culinary delight. To everyone else, it was disgusting and foul. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is the cinematic equivalent of Goop Mélange. Like Oscar Madison, director Gus Van Sant exalts his creation even as everyone else runs screaming from the table. This is a film so inept and awful that it makes Ed Wood's work look like that of Steven Spielberg. Of the many terrible misfires of the decade that was the nineties, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues may be the absolute worst. Nevertheless, despite the harsh words above, believe me when I say I am grateful to have seen the film. After all, one is rarely eyewitness to complete and total disaster.
Based on a 1976 Tom Robbins novel, the film tells the story of Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill: Volume 1), a girl born with a strange defect: thumbs that are the size of English cucumbers. She takes the advice of her father (Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and becomes the self-proclaimed best hitchhiker in the world. In between adventures, she is a successful model for The Countess (John Hurt, The Elephant Man), a feminine hygiene products mogul. Since Sissy's previous five-year campaign was a smashing success, The Countess decides to have her promote his latest female deodorant spray (if you think this product is for the armpits, you are too naïve for this film). He dispatches her to Oregon to stay at the Rubber Rose Ranch, run by Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson, Dressed to Kill). It is during her stay at the Rubber Rose that Sissy connects with Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), ranch hand and leader of a group of stoned lesbian cowgirls enslaved by the wicked Countess. After a coup d'état, the cowgirls gain control of the ranch. They also provoke the ire of the federal government after a group of whooping cranes chooses to remain at the ranch instead of migrating south.
About halfway through the film, Sissy complains that her thumbs ache. After spending 96 minutes of my time watching this film, so did my brain. As a matter of fact, I nearly had an epileptic attack trying to make sense of this story. I have not read the original Tom Robbins novel, but I'm sure it works much better on paper than it does on film. On paper, dated ideals and bizarre situations tend to age better. In fact, I'm willing to believe that it even makes sense. Gus Van Sant's adaptation doesn't even give the novel a chance. Scenes are cobbled together without cohesiveness or proper setup, resulting in utter confusion. There are far too many supporting characters for such a short running time. Van Sant proves he is no Robert Altman when it comes to a multicharacter mosaic. The dialogue is often insipid and clunky, with little feel for tone or style. However, his script is useful in one regard: I did learn that one can take over a ranch by dropping your drawers and letting the oppressors catch a whiff of the unique aroma caused by pungent, unwashed private parts.
The acting is uniformly terrible, even more surprising considering the talent Van Sant assembled. In addition to the aforementioned personnel, the cast includes Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, Sean Young, Ed Begley, Jr., Pat Morita, Faye Dunaway, Steve Buscemi, Lorraine Bracco, Carol Kane, and Heather Graham. One would expect a few magic moments from that cast. Sadly, any potential is squashed by Van Sant's ham-handed direction. Van Sant is normally a talented director, but every four years he is overcome by an urge to make a truly inexplicable film. Four years after this film, we would get the unnecessary Psycho remake, and 2002's Gerry left many wondering what the hell it was all about. Only he knows what he was trying to express with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Cowgirls was a troubled production. Principal photography commenced in 1992. At the 1993 world premiere in the Cannes Film Festival, the film garnered an extremely poor reception (one that wouldn't be topped for ten years, by Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny), which led to a postponement of the planned fall 1993 theatrical release. Months of reshooting and re-editing resulted in a 101-minute cut that opened May 20, 1994, to horrendous reviews and even worse box office. I wonder if the film has been recut yet again for DVD release, as the running time is only 95 minutes on the disc. Not that it matters in the slightest, as no amount of editing will make Cowgirls any easier to take.
New Line presents Cowgirls in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Even though the film is beyond contempt, New Line has provided a fresh and lively transfer. Colors are nice and bold. Grain is minimal, and no serious defects are present. It is a nice clean transfer that will elicit few complaints.
Audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and 5.1 Surround stereo mixes. There is no real difference between mixes if you ask me, but there may be those who will feel otherwise. It doesn't really matter whether or not the mix is stereo or not, since the soundtrack is such a muddle that even the greatest sound mix could not make any sense of it. The sole aspect that emerges unscathed is the k.d. lang score, which is superb. If you are even thinking of seeing this film for the music, though, I hand down this sound piece of advice: Buy the album instead.
As for extra content, New Line's disc is devoid of anything substantial. The original theatrical trailer is offered here in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It is exemplary for one solitary reason: a lesson in sales desperation. I would have really liked to have had a Gus Van Sant commentary track. Maybe if he explained what his intent was with this picture I would have an easier time accepting it. On second thought, not even Baron Munchhausen's gift for creative fibbing could convince me that Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is any good.
I am not sure for whom Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is meant. Devotees of the Robbins novel are bound to find some, if not many, faults with this film version. Regular viewers are going to be baffled and disgusted with the content and tone. Even bad movie aficionados will have a difficult time sitting through this disaster. Despite the superb video quality, I simply cannot bring myself to recommend this a rental or purchase. I'll sum up my feelings about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in eight simple words: I've seen better waste in a cow pasture.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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