Falling From Grace
Falling From Grace (101 minutes) 1992/Rated PG-13 – starring John Mellencamp, Mariel Hemingway, Claude Akins, Dub Taylor, Kay Lenz, Larry Crane, Brent Huff, Kate Noonan, Deidre O’Connell, John Prine. Directed by John Mellencamp. Released through Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video.
Some people work out their problems by seeking a qualified therapist and pay top dollars to divest themselves of their woes. Others turn to a spiritual concept or doctrine to help lift the burdens from their souls. And a handful of folks, perhaps in the heartland of the good ol’ United States, have a tendency to climb inside a steel chicken cage tied to the back of a pickup truck and ride around in a spark-filled, whiskey-fueled, stupor to work out their demons. At least that’s what John Mellencamp’s character resorts to when the façade of his down-home, good-times demeanor shatters over a month’s period while visiting his family in the film “Falling From Grace.”
In 1984, Mellencamp collaborated with Pulitzer-prize winning author Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove,” “Terms of Endearment,” “The Last Picture Show”) on a screenplay tentatively titled “Ridin’ The Cage.” Warner Bros. was interested in the project for awhile, but as with many development deals in the land of celluloid, Mellencamp’s labor of love went into “turnaround.” In 1988, he returned the favor to his writing partner by producing an album called “Too Long In The Wasteland” by new recording artist James McMurtry, Larry’s son. By July 1990, after 8 long years, Columbia Pictures finally gave the script the green light, and Mellencamp began filming his project, now titled “Souvenirs,” in and around his hometown of Seymour, Indiana.
The film tells an almost parallel life to the one John Mellencamp led. An Indiana musician named Bud Parks hails from a big family whose members have fallen into the temptations and the despair small town life serves up like a slow-cooking fondue pot. Bud’s half-brother Ramey (Mellencamp’s bandmate, guitarist Larry Crane) is a hard-scrabble chicken hand at the family’s poultry ranch. Bud’s more successful brother Parker (Brent Huff) resents how the fortunate and wealthy Bud returns to town and tries to act like one of the locals. Parker’s wife, P.J. (Kay Lenz), had wanted Bud to marry her before he left for his life in the big-time music world, but since that didn’t happen, she settled on his brother, the only catch left in town. And Bud’s father, Speck (Claude Akins), after it is revealed that he is having an affair with P.J., is the catalyst by which Bud is forced to face his own inner drives and esteem, leading him to chuck away all he has accomplished on a self-destructive path.
Mellencamp grew up in a big family and fled at an early age to initially make his musical mark in New York City and London. He, too, like Bud, after he found success, returned to his hometown to hang out with his family and high school friends. His uncle, like Claude Akins character in the film, was a womanizer and was loathed by much of the townsfolk, for his abusive, snarling behavior, and it was through an examination of this relative’s defects, Mellencamp, like Bud in the film, determined not to pattern his life in that fashion.
The film is an intelligent, insightful, slice-of-life examination of how difficult it is for a wealthy celebrity to “go home” and sort out the dysfunctions of his past. Although this topic has been covered many times before, the script (credited to McMurtry) handles the theme with a measured maturity and attention to detail. Mellencamp’s assured direction allows the scenes to “breathe,” without fancy camerawork, in his choice of simple pans and slow dolly shots. The actors inhabit their roles with an authenticity that perfectly settles in with the quiet Indiana nights, filled with cigarettes and beer, that are portrayed on the screen. The dialogue is economically to the point, and yet, its brevity holds more power and candor than most films that try to cover the same territory.
As an actor, Mellencamp captures the attention of the viewer and has remarkable presence. The story calls for him to be upbeat and amiable for the first third of the narrative. Mellencamp’s chuckles, grins, and sincere backslaps help draw the viewer into admiring Bud as he tries to fit in with his “common” family and friends. When the wind is taken out of his sails, after he learns P.J. is sleeping with his father, Mellencamp makes the shift in character, subtly, to a more conceited, moody, and introspective nature with appropriate believability. As well-received as this film was by most (worthwhile) critics in 1992, it’s a shame we haven’t seen John’s talents used again in the arena of feature-length filmmaking. “Falling From Grace” is a smart, sure-handed debut.
© 2000 Ned Truslow