Monday, August 04, 2008

Monday Movie Reviews: Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp (1994) 5/10
The life of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), from his early teens to old age.

Wyatt Earp is long (so! long!), ponderous, and moody. Well, not moody. Gloomy. Not dark so much as gray. It is meant, perhaps, as a character study, but after more than three hours, I didn't feel I knew Wyatt Earp especially well, except in the broad strokes of a grief-stricken man, deeply influenced by his father's wanderlust and devotion to family. After the death of his young wife, Wyatt goes on a bender, and then straightens up, closing off his heart and becoming a stiff and difficult man, rigid in his ideas, not all of which are good or honorable.

What comes up here for me is the difference between history and storytelling. Wyatt Earp had a complicated life that has been told and retold many times. He was in Tombstone and in Dodge City. He was friends with Doc Holiday (Dennis Quaid) and Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore). The gunfight at the OK Corral is famous, its lead-in and aftermath less so. Earp had three long-term relationships: The aforementioned wife, and unmarried partnerships with Mattie Blaylock and Josephine Marcus.

This particular movie is determined to squeeze every fact in so as to be "true." But truth is found in narrative, in emotional reality, in a character arc, and none of that is really here. Lives don't happen in narrative arcs, they peak and fall, cluster events together and spread them apart, and the storyteller's job is to create a flow out of the jumble. There's no storyteller here, just a plodding biographer.

Helped not one bit by James Newton Howard's overstated soundtrack. I don't often mention soundtracks in my reviews, but this is just egregious. "Let's go," Earp says in his "This is a Western line" way, and zing go the strings to underscore it. Oy vey.

Finally, let's talk a little about Costner. He gets plenty of hate from some film buffs, but I like him fine. He's a good everyman, a regular Joe in the Jimmy Stewart mold (complete with twangy accent). He's done wonderfully as that guy in Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and lots more. (I always thought someone who could make two baseball movies in a row and have them be distinct and different and interesting had some chops.)

But these very qualities make him all wrong for Wyatt Earp. I think there's no doubt that the real Earp was a charismatic figure; he had a strong influence over his brothers, many of whom were strong men themselves; it was Virgil, not Wyatt, who was the Marshall in Tombstone during the OK Corrall incident. He had passionate romances and deep friendships with colorful characters who respected him. In real life, he must surely have had the presence that someone like Burt Lancaster was able to bring to his portrayal. Costner is unable to show why everyone is so fascinated by the guy.

(Cross-post at the OK Corral.)