We gave it a D+
Dennis Quaid has one of the greatest smiles in movies—a sexy sunburst of a smile. I don’t think Quaid grins once during all two hours of Flesh and Bone (R), and that’s a pretty fair indication of what’s wrong with the film. As Arlis Sweeney, a loner who drives around West Texas stocking soda machines and condom dispensers, Quaid wears a pouty, constipated expression, his mouth turned down in misery, as though he’d just gotten a whuppin’ and were trying not to cry.
Why is Arlis so miserable? Thirty years ago, he and his sociopath daddy, Roy (James Caan), launched a scam against innocent families. Pretending to be a lost little boy, Arlis would get taken into houses, and then, in the middle of the night, the two would rip the places off. One night everything went haywire, and Roy ended up slaughtering an entire family (everyone, that is, except the baby). Arlis is still trying to shake off the demons from that night.
Written and directed by Steve Kloves, whose only other film is the wonderful romantic drama The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Flesh and Bone is a lugubrious piece of American Gothic hokum, the sort of movie that proclaims its lofty intentions in every calculated nuance—in the arid, elliptical dialogue (imagine Ingmar Bergman characters in Stetsons) and in the art-conscious images of the Texas flatlands, so stunning yet so, you know, metaphorical. This is the latest tony cliche: using sullen white-trash characters as ironic embodiments of the frayed national dream. I think Flesh and Bone is pretty awful—a lifeless exercise in cracker chic—yet, like the similarly inert Kalifornia, it may win more respect than it deserves.
Arlis is thrown together with another lost soul, Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), a broken-down beauty fleeing an abusive marriage. Clearly, these two were put on earth to save each other, but they are stalked by the Past, in the form of Arlis’ father, now teamed with a willowy young kleptomaniac (Gwyneth Paltrow). By the time the four arrive at their ultimate confrontation, the tortuous plot has become a veritable pretzel of fate. In Baker Boys, Kloves crafted a melancholy vision laced with ripe possibilities for pleasure and love. But the movie was (inexplicably, to me) a commercial disappointment, and Kloves, perhaps as a delayed response, has returned with a vision drained of joy, freedom, excitement. If anhedonia were art, Flesh and Bone would be a masterpiece. D+