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The Vile, Vile West 

John Cusack does the little screen; plus, a doc and a cartoon

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
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Photo Joe Lederer/HBOTALL, DARK AND HANDSOME JOHN CUSACK, WEARING the twin hats of leading man and executive producer -- or, more accurately, switching them back and forth very fast -- is the primary reason to watch The Jack Bull, an HBO Western about a man who destroys his world for the sake of a principle. He is also the primary reason it exists to watch, TV being ever ready to get in bed with a movie star -- it lends class to the joint. Working (in the grand nepotistic tradition of, among many others, John and Walter Huston) from a screenplay adapted by father Dick Cusack from the early-19th-century German novel Michael Kohlhaas, he plays a Wyoming territory horse breeder seeking redress from a wealthy landowner who mistreats a pair of stallions left as security at a tollgate; when "the system" fails him, he takes the law into his own hands, selling off his property to raise an army, essentially to force the landowner to give his horses a bath, and a good brushing.

There is something great to be made from such a premise, and this isn't it. "The themes you find in this piece are the themes you find in classic cinema," avers co­executive producer Steve Pink. "The good guy versus the bad guy. Man against society. Man protecting his family and land." Apart from the fact that these aren't really "themes," they describe equally well the substance of the Charles Bronson oeuvre, Billy Jack and Walking Tall, Nos. 1­139 inclusive -- films from which The Jack Bull differs less in concept than in self-conception. It imagines itself bagging bigger game than it ever gets in its sights. It is overexplanatory, derivative and predictable -- is there any chance that wife Cora (Miranda Otto) will return from her mission to Cheyenne still breathing? Not in this movie-determined universe. And much of it does not make sense: For a supposedly successful businessman in a pioneer world, Myrl is a phenomenally bad judge of human character; and for a man fanatically devoted to the sanctity of his property, he is remarkably improvident with it. While we are meant to regard Myrl's crusade as honorable and admirable, I couldn't help regarding him as a bit of a dope. Pay the two dollars, I shouted. But to no avail.

The black hats, for their part, are unambiguously vile: pistol-packin' cartoons lacking even the plausible motivation and pathos of a Wile E. Coyote. Mean old rich man L.Q. Jones isn't onscreen 20 seconds before you know everything the film will have to say about him, and it's nothing you haven't heard before. John Savage, a good actor whose career stalled somewhere between rising star and risen, is wasted, or wastes himself, in the stock role -- the overstock role -- of brutal henchman. Director John Badham, whose curriculum vitae (from Saturday Night Fever to Short Circuit to Nick of Time) marks him as what might be nicely termed a professional, gets the walls to stand but can't stop the wind from whistling through the cracks. Well-designed and nicely photographed, the film is not bad and nearly good, but its heavier ideas sink in the pink muck of Hollywood convention, and in its fearful need to make Myrl likable (Cusack calls him a "classic hero") rather than unflinchingly investigate the flaws that impel him to his ruin, the drama pulls up short, leaving a work (of art or whatever) that is not so much tragic as simply frustrating.

It's watchable, for all that, especially as regards Cusack, the Jimmy Stewart of his age. An unsentimental player whose dry, droll cladding only barely camouflages a potential for cold violence, he's aptly cast here, in one of his first real grown-up roles; it's only a shame that the part underserves him -- a state of affairs for which, as exec. prod., he must be held at least partially responsible. And it is never less than pleasant to encounter John Goodman, cast not as a maniac, for a change, but as the Judge Who Cares -- his purpose here is to validate Myrl's outrage, and to ensure that you, dear delicate viewer, will depart the drama believing that, whatever else, evil will not go unpunished. That's right: It's a fairy tale.

THE REAL-LIFE PROTAGONISTS OF BLACK TAR HEROIN: The Dark End of the Street, an HBO documentary on the young junkies of San Francisco, are as confused and doomed as Cusack's Myrl, and like him have staked their future, to the extent they imagine they have one, on a faulty principle. Meet Tracey, inspired by the film Sid and Nancy to give heroin a whirl; meet Jake, the addict son of an addict mother; meet Oreo and Jennifer -- they're young, they're in love, and they shoot drugs. Meet Jessica, meet Alice. They lie, they steal, they score, they get high, they get sick, they get busted, they get momentarily clean, they score, they get high, they get sick, they get busted . . . and for a couple of years they let Steven Okazaki (an Oscar winner for his 1990 short, Days of Waiting) follow them around with a camera, perhaps in the belief that it's better to go to hell on television than to go to hell unnoticed (or never to go on television at all). Captured in full glassy-eyed effect in their unnatural habitats, in trash-strewn apartments and needle-littered alleys, they are somewhat proud and nearly unembarrassed -- but only nearly. And it's in revealing that small hard-dying flame of self-consciousness that Black Tar Heroin becomes something more than a gruesome travelogue. Though stylewise its subjects are punk 'n' pierced, and though they buy the romance of self-destruction and take drugs as much to make themselves special as to kill pain, the film makes clear (from lovers' arguments, old scrapbooks and stoned calls to Grandma) that on a deeper level they crave conventional affection, mundane domesticity, satisfying pastimes. Just like, well, practically everyone. It makes wretchedness complex, and if nothing else -- and it's no small thing -- may make you think a little more kindly or a little more completely upon the next little creep with a Mohawk who panhandles you for change.

STRIKING A CHEERIER NOTE IS HOME MOVIES, A NEW UPN cartoon from the creators of Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, with which it shares a nervous visual style (it's called "Squigglevision") and a contrastingly loose, improvisational approach to dialogue. The subject here is (as it is elsewhere in prime-time Toonville) suburbia and its discontents: specifically, a fourth-grade amateur filmmaker, Brendon Small (played by . . . Brendon Small), his divorced, dating-again mother (Paula Poundstone), his soccer coach (a "big fat crappy Irish guy" played by H. Jon Benjamin, Katz's Ben) and the little friends who make up Brendon's company of peewee players, in such camcorder productions as Dark Side of the Law. Here are a couple of things in it (among many) that I found funny: Paula tells a friend that for a night out she's wearing "a shirt that makes a man want to buy me another shirt." Coach McGuirk tells his team that he's watched some professional soccer, and "I tell you there's a major gap between what I saw on television and where we are right now. First of all, you're all 8, and these people were all in their 20s. They were a lot older -- they were a lot better."

Though I cannot speak with authority as to the psychological or sociological meaning of the cavalcade of cartoons now marching like Alexander's army across the plains of prime-time television, it would be pleasant to imagine that John Q. Tubewatcher has finally gotten his fill of the oopses and gotchas, the ohmigods and eeks of American sitcomedy and is ready for something different, something more imaginative, deep and strange. More likely it's because cartoons are a relatively inexpensive way for a small network to make a big impression, and have the potential to appeal to kids even when designed for adults, since kids just naturally assume that anything animated by rights belongs to them. But the fact remains that cartoons are less insulting to mature intelligence than most live-action comedies; they don't have laugh tracks, for one thing. It's assumed you know what's funny.

No problem with Home Movies. I started laughing almost immediately; later on, I was laughing still.

THE JACK BULL | HBO | Premieres Saturday, April 17, 9 p.m.

BLACK TAR HEROIN: The Dark End of the Street | HBO | Various times through April 29

HOME MOVIES | UPN | Premieres Monday, April 26, 8:30 p.m.

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