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'A Thousand Acres' the harvest of a lousy script

Lange Pfeiffer October 8, 1997
Web posted at: 3:27 p.m. EDT (1927 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- A movie starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Robards would seem to be a pretty good bet to throw off some sparks, wouldn't you think?

Lange already has two Oscars to her credit, and Robards also has a pair. Pfeiffer has steadfastly refused to coast on her looks, growing as an actress in noticeable increments year after year, and Leigh (who is easily the weak link here) sports a career that's stuffed with over-mannered attempts to announce her (self-perceived) transcendent thespianism.

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One of these people (or combinations thereof) should have been able to do something to save "A Thousand Acres," but that doesn't come close to happening because, quite simply, this is one bad script.

So bad, in fact, that I'm now going to go over most of the plot points without regard to "ruining" the movie for you. So, if you don't want to miss out on the fun of experiencing a very talented cast drowning in very untalented material, I would advise you to stop reading right now.

Not even top actresses can save it

This is a "women's picture," and I really hate that phrase (I was watching it and didn't grow breasts), but there's no other way to describe a movie fronted by two big-time actresses that contains this many moments of bad luck, hospitalization, teary-eyed confession and evil, vicious, uncaring, or just plain stupid, men.

If director Jocelyn Moorehouse had been able to give it some pulp, or occasionally display a sense of humor, I might have bought into it in a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford kind of way.

But this thing is so earnest, all you can do is sit there and wonder how people living on a farm in the middle of Iowa could manage to generate such horrendous karma.

Well, there's one big way, and it underlies the entire film, but I'll get to that.

Calamity befalls everybody

For now, let me give you an idea of just how far gone things can get when an old man (Robards) decides to incorporate in his twilight years and give equal shares of his farm to his three daughters -- Lange, Pfeiffer and Leigh.


Leigh, being a lawyer, hesitates for a moment and tells Robards she'll have to think about the offer. She doesn't know if she wants a piece of the farm. This infuriates Robards (quite inexplicably, considering you know next to nothing about the character this early in the movie ... or later, for that matter), so he immediately disowns Leigh.

Then an old friend of the family reappears in town after 11 years and has an affair with the happily married Lange. At one point, Lange explains to her lover that she's had five miscarriages, and he tells her that's because she's been drinking poisonous well water. After this scene, the idea is never, ever mentioned again.

Then we find out that Pfeiffer has had a mastectomy, and her husband now finds her unattractive. Then Robards starts losing his marbles because he thinks he's made a mistake in giving his beloved farm away.

This causes him to get drunk out of his mind and drive around town in a daze. Lange and Pfeiffer try to take his truck away from him, but he just steals another truck and does some more drunk driving. Now Lange and Pfeiffer disown Robards.

Yadda, yadda, yadda

Then Pfeiffer's husband, the one who doesn't find her attractive, gets drunk and crashes his truck into a creek. He drowns.

Then Robards and Leigh reconcile, and sue Pfeiffer and Lange for the possession of the farm. There's a courtroom scene in which Robards gets on the stand and blathers mindlessly. Then Lange leaves her husband and moves out of town, refusing to answer letters from her family.

Then Pfeiffer (big surprise here) has a cancer relapse, is hospitalized and has to undergo radiation treatments. During her Oscar Scene (puffy eyes, losing hair), Pfeiffer admits to Lange that she, too, has been having an affair with the old friend who came back to town and helped ruin Lange's marriage.

Will Lange take the kids when Pfeiffer flutters off to heaven? Of course she will.

Cry, cry, cry. Hug, hug, hug. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And you thought you had it bad.

Film glosses over sexual abuse

The dark secret of this family is that Robards, who is a well-respected man in the county, was sexually abusing Pfeiffer and Lange well into their teen-age years.

I'm not making light of this for a second, but it plays in the movie as motivational anger more than anything else. Pfeiffer and Lange seem to have perfectly healthy sex lives, and they appear well-adjusted enough. You barely sense the weight of sexual abuse -- just the need for two sisters to get back at their father.

A plot this busy doesn't leave you much time to consider the deeper points of a particular issue, so Moorehouse gives Lange and Pfeiffer one (pretty good) scene to discuss this horror, then it's basically time to move on.

After all, there are cancer and multiple incidents of drunk driving lurking out there, and we've only got another hour.

Everyone is good and hard and pure and true, and there are several opportunities for Robards to give the old "this land belonged to my daddy's daddy's daddy's daddy's daddy" speech that every farm movie worth its salt is required to display on the dashboard.

No steam ever builds up in any of the story lines; new subplots just suddenly land on your head, like a cat falling out of a tree.

Remind me never to inherit a farm.

"A Thousand Acres" contains a post-mastectomy examination of Pfeiffer's character, sexual situations and a little bad language. No plague of locusts, but I guess you have to save something for the sequel. Rated R. 105 minutes.


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