On the surface, this jaunty, turn-of-the-century period piece (from a satirical 1993 novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle) explores the gleeful fascist quackery of one John Henry Kellogg--the Michigan doctor who, with his estranged brother Will, invented the corn flake. But there's more to it. In a resounding echo of the current guru-of-the-week sweepstakes, John Kellogg also reigned over a spa in Battle Creek where fashionable citizens of the day (Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller among them) were subjected to the doctor's eccentric regimen of good health and long life. Along with complete abstention from sex, alcohol and featherbeds, the good doctor prescribed inedible foods, foolish calisthenics and various immersions, pummelings and near-electrocutions, courtesy of his unsmiling, medieval staff.
The real trademark of Kellogg's so-called "biological living," however, was the incessant, forced evacuation of the bowels. "We are lifeguards on the shore of the alimentary canal," he raves, and you immediately understand that he's emptied his head even more completely than his large intestine.
The sanitorium's "cure" is, of course, far worse than any disease. What's more, there's nothing innocent or quaint about it: The place is operated like a high-priced concentration camp, and the charlatans take no guff from the customers.
Beginning to sound familiar?
Novel and film are set in 1907, when an army of tin-pot P.T. Barnums also crowded into Battle Creek to capitalize on the breakfast-cereal craze. But don't let the bowler hats and horse-drawn carriages fool you: Boyle and director Alan Parker also heap scorn aplenty on the spiritual fripperies and crackpot agendas of our own day--fad diets and scheming messiahs, neo-prohibitionism and the excesses of radical animal-rights activists, the cults of physical fitness and pop self-realization by the numbers. The obsession with one's excrement (and the redistribution of same) is Wellville's main running joke, and that serves to remind us that Dr. Kellogg's "colonic wash" is once again a hot item on the California ecstasy circuit. What goes around comes around.
The movie might not have worked very well were it not for Anthony Hopkins. The magisterial British star--whose psychopathic killer and repressed butler recently set new standards for all film acting--is almost unrecognizable here. His John Kellogg is a wild-eyed, buck-toothed quack who shouts self-righteous aphorisms into the faces of the sanitorium inmates--er, patients--in a flat, Midwestern accent straight out of a cornfield. The late John Huston comes to mind. So does Elmer Gantry--on hallucinogens. As usual, Hopkins is completely believable--a lunatic set loose in a supposed temple of health, there to prey upon the gullible and the ignorant. He's Charlie Manson shoveling pomegranates and strange grasses into his bedazzled followers. Then he's David Koresh, blasting everything out again with a rectal syringe.
Hopkins's scary, outrageously funny performance (just watch the great scientist gravely equate a porterhouse steak with a bag of dung) casts such a pool of light onto this brutal satire that everyone else winds up in the shadows. As a result, we can only partly sympathize with Eleanor and Will Lightbody (Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick), a young couple who arrive at "the San" with bad stomachs and a nonfunctioning sex life and try to get out again with their lives and personal plumbing intact. We get only momentary chuckles via John Cusack and Michael Lerner as a pair of failed scam artists who manufacture corn flakes so awful even pigs won't eat them. Even Saturday Night Live's overheated Dana Carvey, who fairly rips through the part of George Kellogg, one of John's forty adopted children and the only vengeful one, finds himself in the second row of fiddles. There are some sluggish passages indeed.
But director Parker (Mississippi Burning, The Commitments) also sprinkles the film with primitive feminists in thrall to their bicycle seats, horny German quacks posing as "massage therapists" and cynical grifters gotten up as pioneer venture capitalists. In this skewed vision of the Gilded Age, medicine and business are twin frauds, paving the way for fake prophets and false dreams. It's not a pretty picture, although a mighty funny one. The real hero, fittingly enough, is the filthy, wild-eyed George, gloriously anarchistic but sadly crazed by his adoptive father's coldness.
Wellville can seem like a sneering, ruthless movie, but in the end it tells us that love cures our ills in ways all the snake oil in the world can't touch. It's the same message we get from feel-good movies like Forrest Gump--without all that sugar-coating.
As a writer, Boyle has an uncanny gift (not unlike E. L. Doctorow's) for mythologizing American life, for inflating historical personages into heroes or monsters, or both, so that we see the grain of their lives--and ours--up close. Parker has effectively transferred that quality to the screen. I know one thing: I'll never look at a bowl of corn flakes in the same light again. Or the Boulder Mall.