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STAR DRECK (THE NEXT GENERATION)

Trying to squeeze the goo out of Robert James Waller's romantic bestseller, The Bridges of Madison County, must have been like cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Wherever you look, there's another mess.

Clint Eastwood, a man of few words, and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, a man of patience, have joined the battle with the grimness of soldiers. But they don't quite get the job done. One of the purplest love stories in the history of American typing, as well as one of the most popular (5.6 million sold!), arrives on the silver screen in neater trim, which is to say it has been largely relieved of Waller's overripe prose. But the emotion of the story still has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

This is not to say that the unreadable has been transformed into the unwatchable: As a director and a leading man, Eastwood is a little too sharp for that, and his co-star, Meryl Streep, has a rare gift for elevating even the worst material. But if you still get all warm and fuzzy over the notion of "mature love" after sitting through this endless visit to a Midwestern farmhouse, AARP ought to give you its medal of honor.

For the thirteen people who don't know, Waller's cottage industry of a book turns on Robert Kincaid, a free-spirited National Geographic photographer who travels to rural Iowa in 1965 to take pictures (or "make" pictures, as he likes to say) of two covered bridges. But before he ever gets the lens cap off the Nikon, fate lands him on the doorstep of his natural soulmate, an Italian-born housewife named Francesca Johnson, who has given up her dreams for an incredibly dull husband and two kids.

Robert and Francesca are, of course, made-for-each-others who should have met and fallen in love years ago. Instead, Waller gives them four days of bliss and a lifetime of yearning. The filmmakers are not above manipulating that familiar irony with a fervor equaling the author's. In fact, Eastwood's deficiency as a director--his tendency to linger over shots and milk emotion--sometimes turns into the visual equivalent of Waller's overwrought writing. When Robert and Francesca, who have been igniting each other through their casual conversation, finally start dancing as Johnny Hartman croons on the kitchen radio, the scene goes on for what seems like half an hour--until you can't stand it anymore. Elsewhere, the lovers exchange so many long, fervent looks that you start to hear the crops growing.

The film's original director, Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford, doesn't dawdle so. But Beresford is not Clint Eastwood, a man clearly bent at 65 on putting his silent gunfighters and tough rogue cops behind him forever in favor of...what? A seasoned, a romantic, a wise Clint Eastwood, an artist who always considers his options and can track down jazz on the Philco, even in the boondocks. He looks so craggy and noble and quiet here that he could be made of stone, like some monument to late-blooming dignity in a village park.

Meanwhile, the Meryl Streep Academy of Exotic Foreign Accents is back in session. Much younger than her equivalent in print, Streep's Francesca hails from Bari, a romantic seaside town, and she injects just enough Italianate lilt ("Streepy," a friend dubbed it) into her voice that we are supposed to see the romantic uprooted from Bari all those years ago and plunked down in one Iowa cornfield that Shoeless Joe Jackson will never visit.

But Robert Kincaid does show up, with his camera and his worldly ways. And by the time the tearjerking is done, the two of them have turned into just about the most passionate, responsible, heart-wrenching doomed lovers since Erich Se-gal went up to Boston with Oliver and Jenny 25 years ago.

These people are a lot older, of course. If the movie version of Madison County has a strength--none is discernible in the novel--it's the honor Eastwood, Streep and writer LaGravenese pay to folks who have gone around the turn once or twice, even if their experience is regularly expressed in the most numbing cliches:

She: "Things change."
He: "Always do. It's a law of nature."
All right. So what is there to really like in a mediocre movie made from an awful book that millions love? Well, there's the dramatic framing, for one thing. The Robert/Francesca love affair unfolds as an extended flashback after their deaths--provoked by the discovery of Francesca's confessional diaries by her two children. While the kids read of their mother's secret life--the four days that changed her forever--we see it unfold in the fashionably "desaturated" color tones that always suggest nostalgia and loss: In other words, Madison County is not just "Streepy," it's also "bleachy."

The movie's real kick comes from the children's stunned reactions. Good old Mom has betrayed Dad, so uptight, already-unhappy Michael (Victor Slezak) suffers a nice case of Oedipal anxiety. There's also some Electra-shock. Caroline, Michael's sister, can't believe what she's reading, but she's much more her dreamy mother's daughter than her stolid father's. The effects the diaries eventually have on the children--they both immediately set about dealing with their own troubled marriages--are melodramatic to the point of absurdity. But the legacy Francesca leaves her kids--another kind of bridge in Madison County--is real enough. In contrast to the claustrophobia, sentimentality and emotional manipulation Eastwood has had to bear from the leaden book to the filmed Francesca/Robert story, the liberation of the kids feels like a breath of fresh air.

But the film as a whole comprises a long, long stay in Iowa. And if you're not already in hearts-and-flowers country with Robert James Waller, you may prefer to visit elsewhere.

 
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