Ty Burr
May 26, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

One film’s lesson about Woodstock, adultery, and creative dishonesty

When is a happy ending actually sad? When it feels all wrong.

There’s an engaging little movie called ”A Walk on the Moon” that’s been out for about a month now. I just happened to catch up with it this past weekend. Directed by actor Tony Goldwyn (Patrick Swayze’s nemesis in ”Ghost”), it tells of how a youngish, settled married mother of two flips out — sexually, emotionally, politically, sartorially — during the summer of Woodstock. The always wonderful Diane Lane at last gets a role worthy of her talents as this nice Jewish mom. When she catches a glimpse of the hunky-hippie blouse salesman (Viggo Mortenson, regaining screen credibility after the fiasco of ”A Perfect Murder”) who regularly tours the Catskills lakeside camp where she’s vacationing with her kids, you can practically see the battle between lust and duty playing out on her face. And, oy, does she look fine in a tie-dyed T-shirt.

A little on the obvious side, ”A Walk on the Moon” still nails the cultural crosscurrents of 1969 — the way that a woman who has been walking the straight and narrow for years could suddenly give in to all the freedom rushing by around her. Quite correctly, the movie shows Lane’s character, Pearl Kantrowitz, reconnecting to herself through sex: From Pearl’s initial illicit rendezvous with Mortenson’s Walker Jerome (think singer Jonathan Edwards with better abs, baby boomers), its a short step for womankind to romping lysergically in the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm as Richie Havens croons ”Freedom” (while her teenage daughter watches from afar — uh-oh). Watching Lane, you realize how rare it is to see an avidly sexual woman in a mainstream American movie.

Which is why the ending feels like a crock.

**(Okay, I’m going to get into some plot spoilers here, so consider yourself warned.)**

Pearl’s husband is a schlumpfy-but-kind New York TV repairman, played by Liev Schreiber (think Dustin Hoffman’s handsome kid brother). He’s a mensch, a great dad, a frustrated but basically caring guy. That, of course, is what’s wrong with him, at least as far as Pearl is concerned. Now, after her splendiferous summer fling with Walker, Pearl elects to go back to husband Marty; the film ends with them dancing, clumsily but touchingly, to ”Purple Haze” on the AM radio.

Nice. It sends the audience home feeling that the family unit has been saved, that the kids won’t be hurt, that Pearl has learned her little lesson while getting a few orgasms in the bargain.

Except that’s not the way the ’60s went, folks. Based on my own kidhood recollections, a lot of parents (mine not included, thanks) busted up and stayed busted when one partner or the other strayed during this morally relaxed, ethically confounding time. In some cases, the marriage deserved to crater. In some cases, it could have been saved. In every case, a lot of people got hurt, badly, with only some people coming out wiser.

The remarkable thing about ”A Walk on the Moon” is that it lets you see this domestic tragedy — and understand it — from the strayer’s point of view. And Lane so vibrantly comes alive when she lets her hair down that you simply don’t believe she’d return to Mr. Nice Guy. Maybe she’d suck it in and go back for the kids’ sakes, but the movie doesn’t play it that way. The way Goldywn and company are telling it, she’s glad to go back to being the wife of a Brooklyn TV repairman.

Sorry, I ain’t buying, not after watching the gleam in Lane’s eye for 90 solid minutes. This is a woman who’s willing to kick over the traces entirely, even if that means bringing the house crashing down around her. If ”A Walk on the Moon” had followed that course, it would have been a different movie. More dangerous, probably less ”enjoyable” — and a lot more true.

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