Out of Iowa

That little voodoo doll of a romance novel, The Bridges of Madison County, has grown up into a big, puffy Hollywood movie, replete with teary-eyed stars, candlelit bathtub sex and a sumptuous score to cue our emotions. It probably takes less time to read Robert James Waller's novel (now in its third year on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list) than to watch the movie, which cannot stop ending. In one epiphany after another, Bridges strives toward passionate grandeur, but its real strengths are simplicity and a death-grip earnestness. And its endless denouement — unhappily reminiscent of Gandhi; I thought, “Please let it end” — is like peeling away layers of an onion until there's tragically little left.

Meryl Streep plays Francesca Johnson, a sensuously plump woman of Italian birth whose marriage to an American serviceman has left her, two children later, marooned in the cornfields of Iowa, cooking, cleaning, smiling emptily, wondering how her life got away from her. Her eyes flash with cosmic regret and, when itinerant photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, who also directed) strays onto the homestead, they flash an earthier message: Bonk me, please.

Francesca's husband and children have gone off for four days to the Illinois State Fair to show a prize steer, leaving her home alone except for the dog and her funny accent (a Streep specialty; in fact, her character here, presiding over a large farm, echoes her portrayal of Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa). The picture of a woman alone in a desolate farmhouse as a strange man approaches is an ominous one to modern sensibilities (Frannie, get your gun!), but in Bridges it is 1965. There is still innocence in the world: The man carries a Nikon, not an assault rifle. Kincaid, assigned by National Geographic to photograph a nearby covered bridge, has gotten charmingly lost, and Francesca, eyes aflutter with lust, volunteers to show him the way.

The film's lush cinematography and philosophical tessellations do surprisingly little to embellish the primitive transaction at the heart of Richard LaGravenese's screenplay. Francesca is so desperately horny that she's willing to do it with Kincaid, a leather-faced bad-hair man whose body is improbably buffed with the same industrial precision as fine Japanese automobiles. She spies on him through slats in the bridge; she watches him, shirtless, washing his face at the hand pump in the yard. Francesca never actually salivates over him on-camera (a small mercy), but the outcome is never in doubt. After a country dinner, the light turns gauzy, the music swells and they tastefully go at it.

Fate has allotted Francesca four magical days in which to live a life with her pickup-truck-driving knight. Hubby and kids return then, at which time the Cinderella carriage of her dream-come-true turns back into the mud-flecked pumpkin it always has been and will be — unless she takes drastic action. Time passes — in the movie if not the theater. As the grandfather clock ticks off the hours, Robert and Francesca regard one another within their doomed soap bubble. Despite the large stakes, theirs is stultifyingly banal chat. He muses inconclusively about the colors of Africa. She wrestles with the question of whether to abandon her life and family in favor of him.

But does he want her? He loves everyone, he says, but no one in particular. He's a rolling stone, bouncing self-indulgently along unpaved philosophical trails she finds unbearable. For all the gooey glances the two exchange, his substance is startlingly irrelevant to her problem. He is merely a window to other lives and possibilities she knows exist but, by averting her eyes, has managed to live without. Through him she sees the quiet thwartedness of her own life, and on him she vents years of frustration in which nothing has happened to her besides the slow starvation of her soul.

The saddest thing about Bridges is that suspended in all the sugary syrup are bits of life's real griefs. Decisions made in young adulthood, when information is scarce and easily misinterpreted, do echo through the years. Having children does fundamentally redraw the emotional geometry of families, which begin with that simple sturdy line between two people, only to be elaborated into complexity and instability over time. As Streep says in a voice-over, a mother's life is one of details — laundry, dinner, feeding the dog — whose accumulation silts up the channels of passion. Details are numbing, but there are times when numbness is a blessing — when being numb is a shield against the gentle horror of emptiness.

The affair between Francesca and Robert finds authenticity in its clumsiness, but the movie's frame — her adult children discovering, after her death, Francesca's journals about her intimate dealings with Robert — is a bad exercise in caricature and low comedy. The son dismisses his mother's wish to be cremated as “un-Christian” because she'll be blowing around like dust from an ashtray. Fortified by drink, he threatens mayhem and death to Robert, only to be told by his sweetly condescending younger sister that Robert is already dead. The idea that his mother might have slept with a man other than her husband horrifies him into speechlessness. He cannot bring himself to utter the word “sex” as something his mother might actually have done.

These frame scenes expose the movie's essential confusion. Are middle Americans volcanoes of repressed longing that sometimes explode in moments of glory? Or are they sodden fools who cling with fierce ignorance to the wreckage of their Victorian values? It is hard to tell if the movie celebrates rural America as an idyll or makes fun of it, because it does both, and it does so with no apparent awareness of the contradiction — a sure sign of profound creative disarray.

There is a truism in Hollywood that good novels make bad movies. Film cannot capture the shadings of language and perspective that give good novels their literary appeal. But is the obverse true, that bad novels make good movies? Or do bad novels simply make bad movies that are bad in their own way? Bridges may finally answer this question. As for the larger questions it raises, its answers are too small and shopworn to matter.

The Bridges of Madison County opens Fri, June 2. See Showtime for locations.

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