The Bridges of Madison County is a steamy pulp drama about a fast-talking slickster who lures a dowdy housewife into a weekend fling behind her faithful husband's back, almost wrecking her marriage and leaving her children motherless.
Sorrythat's dangerous hearsay, I realize. But on the surface, that truly is the plot of our generation's most celebrated romantic novel. Robert Kincaid, hunky National Geographic photographer, rolls into a small Iowa town, meets a lonely farm wife, regales her with tales of his adventures in Africa and quickly proceeds to bed her. Heck, this guy is an operator.
What elevated Robert James Waller's cloying novel from run-of-the-mill bodice-ripper to national phenomenon was its underlying theme: that perhaps true love is possible, even after we have enmeshed ourselves within a life of compromise.
What if we suddenly had the opportunity to love as we once dreamed love was supposed to be? No doubt the book spoke to the fantasies of unsatisfied (or at least partly satisfied) women everywhereit's never too late to find perfect love, even in the middle of nowhere, on the far side of your 40s. Too bad such a laudable sentiment was buried in a mire of Waller's pseudo-mysticism that only seemed to advertise how "deep" he is.
Fortunately, Clint Eastwood's film adaptation jettisons most of that garbage in favor of a naturalistic, straightforward tone. Unfortunately, he did not throw away enough. Although he plays Robert Kincaid a la Eastwoodteeth gritted, eyes glaringhe still sputters out loopy, New Age dialogue that we're somehow supposed to believe.
"The old dreams were good dreams," he gravely intones to a rapt Meryl Streep. "They didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them." Well, no damn kidding, Clint! That's why we call them "dreams."
Sadly, the Waller rot extends beyond just the dialogue. Did even the studliest of early 1960s outdoorsmen have such wavy, rockabilly hair? Did they really wear silver bracelets and snug, worn blue jeans? And why does all of Kincaid's Nikon camera equipment look like it time-warped in from 1973?
I think it's because Robert Kincaid serves more or less as Robert James Waller's idealized view of himself: a sensitive mystery man, both rugged and artistic, able to evoke swooning emotions in women he's just met with his pseudo-cryptic New Age babble"the last of his kind."
Believability is not a factor here. Even after screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's careful stripping of annoying dialogueand Eastwood's forthright directing and actingthe character of Robert Kincaid is still one of almost ludicrous fantasy. Where Streep's Francesca Johnson is painfully, wonderfully human, Eastwood comes in like he just walked off the cover of a Harlequin Romance. He's there to serve as the subject of Francesca's yearning, the embodiment of her fantasiesnot as a character of depth or realism.
And that's why I don't buy the romance the film offersto me Eastwood's character is inherently silly; ergo, I can't believe in the sudden, impossible romance. Why would such a solid homebody be prepared to sell her soul for some guy yapping endlessly about how he "grasps the mystic," in 1965?
Even if I weren't such a cynical bastard, I doubt if I'd be swayed by Bridges. The movie's first two hours are pure tedium. I applaud its focus on mature, intelligent, middle-aged characters as romantic figuresbut surely even Iowa housewives and National Geographic globe trotters have something interesting to say. What we get are never-ending conversations about not a whole lot. The only discourse with any kind of emotional weight is an abrupt, tearful fight, but that comes late in the game.
After 120 tepid minutes, however, Bridges finally delivers the payoff: 20 final minutes of truly poignant expert tear-jerking. Needless to say, the lovers' romance is doomed, and Streep portrays such inner turmoil and emotional agony that her performance was met with a chorus of sniffling noses from the audience I sat with. It nearly made me believe in the silliness of the first two hoursmade me philosophical, even.
You see, the first two hours were bad hours. They didn't work out, but I'm glad I won't have to see them again.