Stars and Bars (1988)
“A red, white and blue-blooded comedy.”
Stars and Bars (1988)
Director: Pat O’Connor
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Harry Dean Stanton, Kent Broadhurst
Synopsis: A British art expert travels across America in order to purchase a rare Renoir painting in the South but comes across some crazy characters in the process.
The role of innocent abroad Henderson Dores is one you’d think more likely to figure in the c.v. of a light comic actor like Hugh Grant than acting heavyweight Daniel Day-Lewis (In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York). But even actors of considerable quality have to start somewhere, and Stars and Bars dates from the mid-to-late ‘80s, when Day-Lewis was still finding his feet as a movie star. He has a fresh, clean-cut look about him here that’s strangely disconcerting: sometimes he resembles Christopher Reeves, at others a young Timothy Dalton. Only rarely does he look like the Daniel Day-Lewis with whom we’re now familiar.
Dores is an English upper-class art expert working for his prospective father-in-law at a New York auction house from where he’s despatched to Luxora Beach in the deep South to try and win the contract for the sale of a work of art previously believed to have been lost. The painting is languishing in the rambling old house of eccentric millionaire Loomis Gage (Harry Dean Stanton – Christine, Alien Autopsy) and his equally odd adult offspring. Still relatively new to the States, Dores is having a hard enough time adapting to the American way of life, so when confronted by this family of oddities, he quickly finds himself in over his head. And what begins as an apparently straightforward transaction is complicated by the fact that Gage’s oldest son, a fat Elvis-lookalike called Freeborn (Maury Chaykin – The Pianist), has already sold the painting without his father’s knowledge in order to pay off his gambling debts.
William Boyd’s screen adaptation of his own novel is rambling and slightly messy, and would have benefited from fewer characters and a far less chaotic screenplay. An innocent abroad would have been story enough, but in addition to this we have the engaged Dores falling for a typically brash New York woman (Joan Cusack – Addams Family Values, Toy Story 3), and saddled on the journey with Bryant (Martha Plimpton) the sexually precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of his annoying fiancée. Likewise, in the Luxora Beach, Dores doesn’t just have to contend with Gage and his errant son, but four or five other loopy family members, all of whom seem intent on grabbing as much screen time as possible.
That director Pat O’Connor manages to cram so much plot into Stars and Bars’ relatively brisk running time is nothing short of a miracle. I haven’t read Boyd’s novel, but get the distinct impression he was perhaps a little too attached to its characters, and the film cries out for an objective eye to carry out some judicious pruning to tighten the plot. Day-Lewis recites his wordy dialogue in the precise tones of an English gentleman found only amongst the highest ranks of British society but, accent aside, is given little opportunity to demonstrate his acting skills and, given his subsequent roles, feels a little wasted. The rest of the cast wrestle gamely with the often farcical situations in which Boyd places them but are ultimately defeated by the a plot that really is too busy for its own good.
(Reviewed 3rd January 2016)