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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe Movie Review

callow redgrave carradine fight

Quick: you're casting a movie set in a Depression-era mill town in the South and you need someone to play Miss Amelia, a love-starved local recluse. Who's the first person on your short list? Outstanding actress that she is, Vanessa Redgrave does not spring immediately to mind. Did anyone try to contact, say, Sissy Spacek or Shelley Duvall? This screen adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe shows how three miscast Oscar winners can flounder under the guidance of an inexperienced, first-time director. British character actor Simon Callow has been seen to good effect in the Merchant Ivory films A Room with a View and Maurice as well as The Good Father, but he's out of his depth with such an ambitious first project. The first few minutes offer a good clue as to what will be wrong with the rest of the film. There are several vignettes of varying length that are supposed to show something about the characters in this town, only they don't. Unfortunately, none of the vignettes build on each other and there's nothing particularly riveting about any of the images that Callow selects. After nearly an hour, the story begins with the arrival of Miss Amelia's husband, portrayed by Keith Carradine, and the last half of the film sets us up for their final confrontation, a fist fight in which neither pulls a single punch. It's probably the least exciting fist fight we've ever seen on film, although Callow certainly tries hard to make it seem as if it OUGHT to be. There are, for example, countless close-ups of the spectators wringing their handkerchiefs. I've never seen a screen fight in which both fighters lead with their chins so much. Redgrave and Carradine successfully aim for each other's teeth throughout the entire fight, and fail to lose a single tooth. Stylistic decision or bad choreography? Redgrave and Carradine ignite no onscreen sparks alone or together. At one point, Redgrave and Cork Hubbert go to see a movie in a neighboring town. The newsreels are crammed with FDR, but the unlikely feature attraction is a 1929 Hoover-era flop with Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland, New York Nights. Of all the cast, Hubbert fares the best with Callow's over-the-top direction, but everyone, even Redgrave and the extras, is somewhat guilty of overacting. The worst offender is Rod Steiger, in a small part as a preacher who invests his relatively brief screen time with enough subtext for 25 roles. It's hard to tell whether Callow was intimidated by his star-studded cast, the material, the period, or the locale, but nothing about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe seems real. It's more like a travelog you might be forced to sit through in Quaintness 101. Callow will be more fondly remembered for the lovable character who stuck his finger down his throat in a folk-style wedding service during 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral.

1991 (PG-13) 100m/C GB Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Cork Hubbert, Rod Steiger, Austin Pendleton, Beth Dixon, Lanny Flaherty, Mert Hatfield, Earl Hindman, Anne Pitoniak; D: Simon Callow; W: Michael Hirst; C: Walter Lassally; M: Richard Robbins. VHS, LV, Closed Caption

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