Friday, October 19, 2012

Pulp Romantic Fiction: "Violets Are Blue" (1986)

Pulp romance novels, the bane of garage sales and libraries everywhere, do have their place in the world. While easily dismissed, thousands are read every month by loyal fans who may not read otherwise. Bestselling authors Nora Roberts and Janet Dailey are just two names that come to mind who started with the pulpy romance novels. Unfortunately, pulp romance seems to have influenced...no, overwhelmed screenwriter Naomi Foner, who penned this abysmal misfire.

It's 1969 in Ocean City, Maryland. Hippie chick Gussie (Sissy Spacek) and studly lothario Henry (Kevin Kline) are enjoying some alone time on a small nearby island populated by wild horses (*foreshadowing alert*). Thanks to some hilariously awful expositional dialogue, we find out Henry is a budding journalist on his way to college in Boston, while Gussie plans to take a stewardess job and see the world. They'll always have their beach sex on horsie island...

Fifteen years later, Gussie is now a roaming war photographer. She returns to vacation at home with her parents. Gussie sees Henry during a big sailboat race, since Henry came back from Boston years ago and now runs the local newspaper. Gussie also gets to meet Henry's wife Ruth (Bonnie Bedelia) and teenage son Addy (Jim Standiford), and witnesses Henry's blissful domestic life. Henry sees his unfulfilled writing career in Gussie, and both are driven to take up where they left off romantically.

Henry is gaining a bad reputation around town. That horse island is getting developed, creating hundreds of construction jobs, but Henry is dead set against it, raising the ire of many a townsfolk who read his editorials against the project. Henry and Gussie continue to fool around, until the horse island controversy changes their relationship.

Foner's script is just like a pulp romance novel (yes, I have read a couple over the years). The plot is mechanical. Characterization is surface. It would be one thing if Henry's choice between his two women were clearer. Ruth seems like a fine gal, they only married because she got pregnant. Gussie, also a fine gal, does fight her reawakened feelings for Henry a good two hours before boinking him on the beach. Both women have admirable qualities, which makes Henry seem like the heel. Bedelia's scenes all take place in the home as if she were chained to the breakfast nook. Free spirit Gussie goes wherever she wants on a whim, without bothersome mates and kids tying her down. Henry, while trapped in Ocean City, crusades for the good anyway, not quite fulfilling his Pulitzer dreams but making the most of where he is at. All three do not change one iota from the beginning of the film to the end!

Spacek, Kline, and Bedelia are too good for this material. They somehow deliver their goofball dialogue with straight faces. When Ruth finds out about the affair, Bedelia has a line about her husband making her out to be a foolish idiot but never lying to her. This works so well, she delivers the line again almost verbatim a few minutes later in another scene. Director Fisk, Spacek's husband, brings this in at a scant eighty-six minutes, so tightening the dialogue and dumping the silly horse island subplot would have been impossible. The music comically wells in all the wrong spots, and the late Laura Branigan must belt out the closing love theme, obviously a desperate attempt at a Best Song Oscar nomination.

While virtually unheard of today, it is fascinating to watch two Academy Award winners slowly languish in this progressing mess. While not Spacek's worst film (try sitting through "Trading Mom" sometime), it seems like a lark that husband and wife decided to do on a dare during a family vacation. "Violets Are Blue" has all the edge, suspense, and passion of wet sand down the back of your swimsuit. (*) out of five stars.