Judge Brett Cullum drinks sweetened tea and puts his ear down on the ground to hear music in this prime example of Southern Gothic cinema.
Love is a chain of love…as nature is a chain of life.
With its "based on a literary masterpiece" and "an all-star cast in a Southern Gothic tale of charming oddballs in pre-World War II America" labels worn proudly on its sleeve, The Grass Harp delivers exactly what you would expect. It's a quiet film based on Truman Capote's novel, which recounted his youth (probably with a few embellishments for good measure). It has great actors delivering reserved performances, in what amounts to something that feels like a Merchant Ivory film, set in the deep South and directed by Charles Matthau. And yes, the name means he is the son of Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears), who appears in the film. It's a nice film for when you're tired of renting Fried Green Tomatoes or Driving Miss Daisy. It's soft and moving in the right places, but feels hesitant to pack a powerful wallop. It's too busy being pretty and poetic to ever go to the ugly places it hints at, which may be fine for when you need a feel-good film.
The story is about young Collin Fenwick (Edward Furlong, Terminator 2), who is sent to a small Southern town after his parents pass away to be raised by his two aunts. The head of the house (and indeed the entire town) is Verena (Sissy Spacek, The Straight Story), who runs a tight ship both at home and at her many businesses. She's all about the discipline of the rod and the power of a dollar. Also living in the house is her fanciful sister Dolly (Piper Laurie, Twin Peaks), a free-spirited woman who seems to have never grown up. Dolly exists on a steady stream of sweets and fantasies while she makes a natural medicine that gypsies taught her about. Aligned with Dolly is the maid of the house, Catherine (Nell Carter, Gimme A Break). She's a hilarious big-hearted woman who claims she is half Indian, and is constantly finding ways to buck Verena's control. The two sisters clash, until one day Dolly decides to run away. Young Collin and Catherine head off with her, but they only make it as far as a tree house on the edge of the property. They refuse to come down—much to Verena's dismay. Their disobedience sets in motion a series of life-changing events that will alter the entire town before it's all over.
The most amazing aspect of The Grass Harp is the cast. Piper Laurie gives a heartbreaking and tender quality to the mystical, girlish Dolly Talbo. It's interesting to see her here as Sissy Spacek's sister, especially when it's Spacek who is the dour, crotchety, abusively domineering one. Spacek seems excited to take on a more stern role than she is usually offered, and it works. You can't help but flash back to both stars in Carrie, where Laurie terrorized a meek Spacek as part of a hellish mother/daughter team. My, how the tables have turned twenty years later. Edward Furlong gives the role of Collin a surliness that is a trademark for the young actor, and differs from the book's much meeker portrayal. I don't mind it, but it does seem to be a case where the actor is bending the role to himself rather than the other way around. Walter Matthau shines under the direction of his own son in his role as the eccentric and kindly retired judge. Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot) appears as a slick chemical engineer ready to mass produce Dolly's gypsy tonic. Mary Steenburgen (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) plays a traveling evangelist with a brood of illegitimate children. And who would pass up a chance to see Nell Carter flinging around her fake teeth and claiming to be an Indian? You also get cameos from Joe Don Baker (The Natural), Roddy McDowell (Fright Night), Charles Durning (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and Mia Kirshner (The L Word). It's a dream cast for a small independent film.
The whole film is light and delicate, but is bogged down by its budget constraints and a script laden with endless dialogue and first-person narration. With all the talking, The Grass Harp comes off as too respectful to the source novel. It also feels way too determined to be a crowd-pleaser. The themes of racism, sexual identity, and conservatism versus liberalism are all diluted in favor of making a movie about the nature of love. It could pose some hard, dark questions, but instead it chooses to meditate on what it means to love someone. Like Dolly's craving for sweets, the film comes off like four courses of dessert without any meat to make the sweet parts more palatable. It's photographed like Norman Rockwell was its cinematographer; all pretty portraits of family moving through domestic settings and golden Southern landscapes. The entire effect is sweet and innocent. The Grass Harp could easily run on the Hallmark channel, and is fine family entertainment when you need something to entertain everyone after a holiday dinner.
New Line presents a bare-bones DVD with a solid transfer. The flesh tones seem well rendered, and the soft, gauzy image was a directorial choice. The sound mix is a surprisingly full 5.1 surround treatment that uses the rear speakers mainly for outdoor ambient noises and musical cues. Dialogue seems positioned front and center where it belongs, and overall it works for the film. An alternate simpler stereo mix is present as well. No extras at all.
The Grass Harp is fine family fare, and a faithful adaptation of one of Truman Capote's best-loved novels. If you're a fan of Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes, it will be a nice diversion for about two hours. The cast is stunning, and it presents a chance to see some veteran thespians take on roles they inhabit easily. The movie never demands too much of anyone, and it's a pleasant enough experience to recommend as at least a rental. It probably could have benefited from some extras, but it stands alone nicely. It's a whispered tale of a simpler time and a gentler era. Maybe that's not reality, and overly romantic, but in Southern Gothic cinema that's often what you get.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• DVD-ROM Feature: Script to Screen Comparison
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