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MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Chiara Caselli, Udo Kier
Director:  Gus Van Sant
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  March 1, 2005

"This road never ends."

Film **1/2

If nothing else, My Own Private Idaho offers irascible testimony to how much we lost when River Phoenix passed away.  An impressive screen presence from childhood, he delivered one solid performance after another in his all-too-brief career.  But it was in this movie that he showed the world what a force he was to be reckoned with.

His work is so strong that I only wish I liked the overall film a little more.  My Own Private Idaho was director Gus Van Sant's follow-up to his critically acclaimed Drugstore Cowboy (and by all accounts, the movie he really wanted to make first).  It's a lovingly constructed but frequently sloppy piece of indulgence that has many things to admire and many more to criticize.

It more or less follows the story of Mike Waters (Phoenix) with no real beginning or end to his tale.  Mike is a hustler and a narcoleptic, not necessarily in that order.  Family traumas that reveal themselves over the course of the movie help to paint him as an agonized loner starved for real love but willing to trade the physical semblance of it for cash, be it with a man or woman.  His condition makes him an early indicator of Leonard Selby in Memento...always in a waking state trying to bring himself back up to speed with his own life.

He hangs out in Portland, Oregon with other street hustlers, who are colorful but mostly unimportant characters (rock bassist Flea plays one of them).  His main connections are to his best friend Scott Favor (Reeves), a mayor's son and soon-to-be heir to a fortune, who runs with the rough crowds and hustles more for rebellion than need, and to Bob (Richert), the hippie-esque leader of the troupe, whom Scott claims to love more than his own father.

It's with these characters that Van Sant wallows in his first major indulgence, which is a bit of a bastardization of Shakespeare's Henry IV.  The characters dribble in the Bard's dialect, with a few key words twisted around here and there.  What's the point?  Maybe that Van Sant saw a kind of broken nobility in these street hustlers.  But it feels forced and very unnatural.

Van Sant is a filmmaker who seems to enjoy taking other works and trying to improve on them, but he frequently sets his sights too high.  Like his remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he tries to elevate both Shakespeare and Orson Welles into something else, but ends up only showing how weak he is in comparison.  Most artists fall short of those two masters, to be sure, but not many would dare invoke such brutal comparison.

The film works best when Phoenix is allowed to explore and reveal his character, and he does so fully, in many scenes that are memorable and heartbreaking.  A campfire setting turns into one of the most painful attempts to express love I've ever seen...it goes beyond simple classifications of heterosexual or homosexual and instead becomes a naked, heartfelt revelation of pure undefined emotion.

This occurs during a road trip, of sorts, when Scott tries to help Mike find his long estranged birth mother.  The trek goes through Idaho (of course), and ends up in Italy where a chance meeting with a beautiful Italian girl (Caselli) snaps Scott out of his charade and back to the man he was born to be (which may not have been the best thing for him).  Scott chose to be in that life, and he chose to get out of it.  Mike, last seen like Tennessee Williams' Blanche, is left to depend on the kindness of strangers because he had no say in how his own life unfolded.

The film is photographed with a loving eye, making the American Midwest almost a character in and of itself.  As mentioned, there is much to like about it.  But the undisciplined eccentricity weighs it down, and what could have been a landmark character study instead feels like a movie that Van Sant made only to satisfy himself.

Video ***1/2

Criterion's anamorphic transfer is quite beautiful, expressing Van Sant's vision of wide open spaces and far reaching skies with integrity and clarity.  Colors are rich and natural looking throughout, and the print doesn't seem marred by age or grain.  Detail level is impressive all the way.

Audio ***

Likewise, the new 5.1 mix is very well done, with clear dialogue, haunting music cues (especially the steel guitar version of "America the Beautiful", with the rear stage providing some nice ambience in the movie's many quieter moments.

Features ***1/2

This double disc set makes some interesting uses of extras...Disc One has the trailer; now on to Disc Two.

Gus Van Sant doesn't make a visual appearance here; instead we have an audio interview conducted by director Todd Haynes, which is kind of a substitute commentary track.  Another audio-only feature is a conversation between writer JT LeRoy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette.  If you want to see who you're listening to, there's a new making-of documentary that features members of Van Sant's crew (not him nor his actors).  There's a video interview with film scholar Paul Arthur discussing the classical roots of the screenplay, and a conversation between producer Laurie Parker and Rain Phoenix.  Rounding out are 6 deleted scenes.

The 64 page booklet is another Criterion treasure trove, filled with photos, essays, reprinted articles and interviews with Van Sant, Phoenix and Reeves.

Summary:

Criterion scores with this terrific double disc set of a bona fide cult classic.  My Own Private Idaho is worth seeing for the career-defining performance by the late River Phoenix, despite the indulgences of Van Sant that frequently try the patience.

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