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Farmed Out: The rural grind proves a hard row to hoe for Sigourney Weaver and David Strathairn in Scott Elliott's 'A Map of the World.'

Murmurs Of the Heartland

Sigourney Weaver struggles to survive farm life in 'A Map of the World'

By Richard von Busack

ANYONE WITH SENSE automatically turns up to see Sigourney Weaver. You can almost always trust the choices this intelligent, pugnacious performer makes. Behind the bland title and the saccharine Pat Metheny soundtrack, her new film, A Map of the World, is almost a mini-epic on the unsettling of America. Early on, you can see that it isn't just another valentine to America's heartland.

The costumes are mostly thrift-shopped, lived-in--even if these clothes drape like high-fashion creations on Weaver's beautiful bones. The dishes in the farmhouse kitchen don't match; the gates are salvaged and don't hang right on their fences. This dairy farm hasn't been visited by Better Homes and Gardens.

A Map of the World, based on Jane Hamilton's novel, is a story of intolerance and how it drives a family off their land. Yet even for the summery visions of ponds and leafy oaks, the film has a rancorous heart. As Alice, a woman not born to be a farmwife, Weaver gives maybe her best performance yet.

First-time director Scott Elliott, yet another refugee from the New York stage, follows Alice around on her morning routines. Her husband (David Straithairn) is useless when it comes to handling kids, and her undisciplined two daughters (Dara and Kayla Perlmutter) are both under age 5. The elder of the two is going through an "I hate you, Mommy" stage.

In a voice-over, Alice reminds us of the perils of being a mother. One moment of distraction, she tells us, one lapse of attention--and sure enough, after an ambiance of dread amped up by Elliott's use of a hand-held camera (The Blair Kitchen Project), Alice makes a fatal mistake. The tragedy wounds Alice's friendship with Theresa (Julianne Moore). Trouble mounts on trouble, and Alice--who has a part-time job as a school nurse--is jailed on a charge of child molestation.

Weaver is a graceful comedian, as seen in Galaxy Quest, and a burning, mesmerizing tragedian, as seen in the Alien films and Death and the Maiden. Here, she uses both skills, refusing to make Alice an object lesson about a female life-force enchained.

The film could have been something weepy and tawdry, like that since- forgotten Diane Keaton film The Good Mother. In this case, Alice's dry anger in the face of injustice shows us not just that Alice is in the right but also how she makes matters worse for herself by not softening. (And she is so close to a nervous breakdown before she goes to jail that jail turns out to be a kind of improvement--Weaver shows us the harsh comedy in that situation.)

A Map of the World offers a historic meeting of two of the best actors in the movies today--just as important, but not as publicized, as the meeting of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat a few years ago. Yet Elliott doesn't make the most of the situation. He doesn't come up with some basic reaction shots so that we can see the faces of both Moore and Weaver when they're sharing a scene.

Moviegoers who aren't paying attention will never understand what's eating Alice, because Elliott doesn't establish early enough that both Alice and Howard haven't been farmers all their lives. The film may be written off as a story of a woman's inexplicable wrath, instead of an analysis of something the movies rarely touch on today--namely the bad side of small-town life, with its suspicions and gossip.

When contrasted with the imagery of a funky, inviting farm--perfect under the right circumstance, unbearable under the wrong ones--A Map of the World has a complex subject that survives its sometimes awkward unveiling.

A Map of the World (Unrated; 127 min.), directed by Scott Elliott, written by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt, based on the novel by Jane Hamilton, photographed by Seamus McGarvey and starring Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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