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This cinema version of the Sam Shepard play is set well after the mid-century. James Woods as the alcoholic farmer drives a huge beater with a rusted roof which is emblematic of the general disrepair of his farm. A lovingly tended lamb with maggots is the reverse emblem of something helpless, needy and cared for. The refrigerator is spoken to as a character, as if standing in for absent nurturing from Woods' self-centered wife. The couple have two kids who must come of age as their home is being torn apart around them and the parents pursue fantasies of "better things" offered by crook Randy Quaid. Henry Thomas as the son copes by holding on to the land and creating a poetic commentary, and the responses of his sister to the crisis become a powerful and surprising tribute to womanhood. Written by
"Curse of the Starving Class" is one of those family drama films destined to provoke different reactions from its audiences, leaving you uneasy or very depressed. Judging by what was written by previous reviewers, the film is difficult, slow and of reduced appeal, and goes to show it current low rating. Somewhat undeserving. A clinical mind and view is needed in order for you to embrace the ideas presented here, because this good adaptation of Sam Shepard's play has more than it meets the eye. It holds relevance despite the strange outcomes the story brings us and there's plenty of good qualities despite of the film and its many problems. It misses the chance of being great due to circumstances unknown to us, which revolves around director and casting choices. I'll return to those points far ahead.
On a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere lives the Tate family. The mother, Ella (Kathy Bates) tries to maintain her family and keep things working as usual while her husband Weston (James Woods) spends all of his time out of the farm, heavily drinking and causing disturbance when he's back home. And then there's the son and daughter: the young and idealist Wesley (Henry Thomas) who's very helpful in the best way he can but he's also an easily irritable person, who likes to annoy his younger sister, Emma (Kristin Fiorella), a rebellious teen of her own who feels inadequate in this place with these people and wants to leave immediately, given the opportunity or the courage to leave everything behind.
The turn of events here comes when we discover that Ella is trying to sell the farm to the lawyer Taylor (Randy Quaid), without Weston finding. Ella dreams of taking the kids and move to Europe, far away from her low-life husband. The mountain of difficulties gets bigger when it's revealed a possible affair between Ella and the lawyer who was involved in a swindled business with Weston. While the alleged man of the house isn't there, always on the run from a pair of menacing thugs of whom he owes some money, the young members of the Tate family watch several events unfolding between their mom and Taylor.
By opening wounds of this gathering of characters and hardly ever shying away from pain and misery, this is a work that reveals a real and maddening view of people. The starving class of the title is a lot more than what the Tate family members keep on repeating from time to time when there's no food in the house. It's a different kind of starvation, one that revolves around broken hopes and dreams, shattered lives, and yet despite the hopelessness of it all they still cling for a life change, they're starving on those good things. Ignoring the past, barely living the present and just wishing for a better future but without finding the proper ways of moving forward. A kind of hunger that doesn't disappear even with some positive changes; it's just life happening, people always wanting more just to appease our endless sense of chronic dissatisfaction.
A text this meaningful as Shepard's play probably is (haven't seen it, but read the outline and major plot points) can only work with precision and quality if the cast attached to it knows how to operate. Indeed, the film's triumph resides with the stellar cast and they're the ones who make the film gain a strange form of appeal, even though some of the performances are erratic. Kathy Bates plays against the usual decisive hard woman type, she's more vulnerable, frail and makes of Ella the most sympathetic character of the group; Henry Thomas delivers another good performance as usual; Quaid is always fine when he plays crooks with a sense of humor (and speaking of humor, the film has plenty of it specially Wesley and Emma bickering). However, there's problems with an over-the-top James Woods, his fast-talking trademark isn't suitable to such a loud and drunk character - but towards the conclusion he brings some quality (Shepard or Jeff Bridges in this role would be greater); and the newcomer and vanished from the screen after this film, Kristin Fiorella. Works nice with some comedic elements but just like Woods she does too much.
As you see, the cast is interesting but we wonder, who's behind this? A director that no one knows, didn't have any directorial credits before this film and only made two more projects - and perhaps that's why the film never accomplishes a destined greatness. J. Michael McClary's direction of actors is fine, but by not allowing the film work in a play sense, throwing an intrusive music at almost every scene, he turned a powerful drama into a strange melodrama. The music is fine but it's excessive use was very poor. And Emma's attack on the bar was ridiculously filmed, it's truly unbelievable (the moment is in the actual play). And I wonder why Bruce Beresford (screenwriter/producer of this piece) wasn't the one directing? His instincts and film knowledge would improve a film like this (as for his adaptation, he should remove some of poetic bits of Wesley). In the end, we have a fine movie faulted by the director with some unwise choices.
For those who know or read the play, be ready to get slightly disappointed due to the countless changes made for this film version (the conclusion is more upbeat than in the play, but the one presented on it had a lot more impact than the one seen in the film). But the atmosphere, the realization that you're seeing real characters and not something else, is what makes of "Curse of the Starving Class" a film to not be missed. 8/10
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