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A Walk on the Moon

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 16 April 1999

rwalkmoon.jpg (20489 bytes)   Directed by Tony Goldwyn

Starring Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen, Liev Schreiber,
Anna Paquin, and Tovah Feldshuh

Written by Pamela Gray

"I can’t go to Woodstock, it’s on Shabbas," says a conflicted teenager at about the midway point of this unexpectedly resonant drama about familial and social upheaval in the summer of 1969. Played out in a Catskills resort as men are landing on the moon and hippies are massing for Woodstock a stone’s throw away, this tension between tradition and experimentation in the Kantrowitz family -- coupled with the movie’s daring but successful rejection of period cliches -- gives A Walk on the Moon an ingratiating geniality that survives an underwritten character, some mannered playing and a contrived climax.

Every summer the working-class Kantrowitz family journeys from the heat of New York City to the relative comfort of Dr. Fogler’s Bungalows in the Catskills. Decent Dad Marty (Liev Schreiber) is a television repairman who must work during the week (everybody wants their sets fixed to watch the moon landing). This leaves young Mom Pearl (Diane Lane) and her mother-in-law Lilian (Tovah Feldshuh) with teenage daughter Alison (Anna Paquin) and rambunctious young Danny (Bobby Boriello).

Among the many rituals of life in the vacation community are the various merchants who ply their wares from trucks and busses: the Ice Cream Man, the Knish Man, the Blouse Man. In fact, it is the new Blouse Man, Walker Jerome (Viggo Mortensen), who gives Pearl the push she needs to break out of her routine. It is only when the new lovers sneak away to Woodstock -- and are observed by Alison, who is experimenting with new sensations of her own -- that the Kantrowitz family begins to feel the pressures of new freedoms and volatile emotions.

Originally titled The Blouse Man when it was written by Pamela Gray as an autobiographically tinged film school thesis -- her family had summered in the Catskills when she was young -- the script came to the attention of the actor Tony Goldwyn, who had originally intended to produce and star. Yet as pre-production continued and the screenplay was passed to a subsequently enchanted Dustin Hoffman, Goldwyn decided to direct and the script became the property of Hoffman’s Punch Productions (the story occasionally feels like a committee effort, particularly during a skinnydipping interlude between Pearl and Walker and the all-too-neat climactic confrontation between the Blouse Man and Marty). Still, there is an unusual richness in the attention to detail: Marty honestly wants to change, dancing first to Bob Dylan’s "Su and then, at the end of the movie, to "Purple Haze." Lilian seems at first all too forgiving of Pearl’s indiscretion, but a nice bit of business involving a chemistry set gives the plot strand emotional veracity.

The picture was filmed in the Laurentian mountains just north of Montreal (where the surviving bungalows were apparently better preserved than their Catskills counterparts) by veteran cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond who, ironically, lensed such key rock-themed movies as Sympathy for the Devil, Let it Be, The Kids are Alright, The Rolling Stones Rock’n’Roll Circus and The Man Who Fell to Earth (his long-time affiliation with MWFTE director Nicolas Roeg also includes the landmark psychological horror film Don’t Look Now). As with the production and costume design, the cinematography is so authentic as to be invisible -- perhaps the highest praise such craftspeople can receive.

Eschewing a full-scale recreation of the pivotal Woodstock music festival, the production only hints at the sea of humanity long enough to drive the story forward, and the choice of Richie Havens’ "Freedom," which comments ironically and tellingly on the action, also speaks to the canny choice of non-traditional and little-remembered songs from the period. These include The Grateful Dead’s "Uncle John’s Band" and "Ripple," Big Brother & the Holding Company’s cover of the Gershwin standard "Summertime," Jefferson Airplane’s "Today" (blended with the beeping of the lunar lander on a primitive black and white television as Pearl and the Blouse Man first make love), It’s a Beautiful Day’s "White Bird," Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and Morcheeba’s cover of Tommy James and the Shondell’s "Crystal Blue Persuasion."

The acting is focused throughout. Paquin continues to show the promise first exhibited in The Piano (which won her an Oscar), and the actress is indeed fortunate to have had such a well-written part in her precise age range come avaiable. Feldshuh too is fine, avoiding the cliches of the Jewish grandmother through a shrewd playing of the character as simultaneously old enough to have wisdom and young enough to sympathize with Pearl’s inarticulate yearning.

Yet it is Schreiber’s playing of Marty as nothing less than the young Dustin Hoffman that holds A Walk on the Moon together. Perhaps best known as the suspicious Cotton Weary in the two Scream films, the actor here comes in to his own as a father whose sense of responsibility and restraint finally conquers his substantial grief. It is the kind of performance that does nothing to attract attention to itself, yet without his precise calibration of Marty’s warring emotions (particularly in the climactic passages) the film would spin into either turgid melodrama or bad method-fueled family feuding.

The weak link here is the relationship between Pearl and the Blouse Man, as both written and performed. Jerome seems to be more a sketch than a full-fledged character, a quiet stud whose phallic bus and inarticulate promise of freedom from routine moves the story towards the inevitable showdown between Pearl and Marty -- before the Blouse Man himself almost literally fades from the scene. For some reason, both Lane and Mortensen are excessively mannered in their scenes together, all eyebrows and elbows in direct contrast to the comfortable naturalism of the rest of the cast. The film also asks audiences to believe that two people could’ve randomly run into each other at Woodstock and has a final confrontation between Marty and Jerome that seems contrived after all that has preceded it.

To it’s credit, the lack of chemistry between the leads might also be seen as the point of the film: an impulsive move in a summer of social upheaval (thirty years ago this July/August, you graying boomers), the affair between Pearl and Walker seems about as well-planned as the security at Woodstock -- yet had those restrictions been in place it’s unlikely the event itself would have the same cultural resonance today. A Walk on the Moon speculates on choices made and prices paid in a way that is vivid yet admirably down-beat, non-judgmental and ultimately benevolent.

Be sure to read Paula Nechak's interview with Tony Goldwyn.

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