By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 09, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

As the eternal golden boy of contemporary Hollywood, Robert Redford has specialized in portraying shiny-blond heroic icons — but thoughtful, soul-searching ones, like Jay Gatsby or the idealistic senatorial hopeful of The Candidate or the down-but-not-out long-ball hitter of The Natural. Now, with A River Runs Through It, his third film as a director, it’s clear that Redford is out to perform the same mission behind the camera that he has in front of it. Like his directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980), this risky and reverent adaptation of Norman Maclean’s 1976 autobiographical novella seems dedicated to the proposition that WASPs have feelings too. Set in the idyllic small-town wilderness of Missoula, Mont., during the early part of the century, the movie tells the story of two siblings — Maclean himself (Craig Sheffer) and his younger brother, Paul (Brad Pitt) — who’ve been raised with stern devotion by their demanding father (Tom Skerritt), a Scottish Presbyterian minister who has instilled in both young men a primal passion for fly-fishing.

Fly-fishing? It is Maclean’s beguiling conceit that this elemental outdoor pastime could take on the quality of an authentic religious experience — that the true sportsman, dipping his fishing rod into the stream of life, could experience the rituals, pleasures, and dexterous physical skills of fly-fishing as an organic metaphor for a life well lived. Maclean’s book, which often reads like a New Age update of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is mystical without being pretentious. He presents fly-fishing as a concrete, cleansing experience, and Redford, in the film’s highly pleasing riverbank sequences, captures that quiet sense of spiritual joy.

At the same time, Redford has done his best to turn the book into a savvy commercial entertainment. If he doesn’t quite succeed — the atmosphere is more convincing than the story — the attempt itself has warmth, humor, and grace. Norman and Paul, who bond through fishing, are a punchy study in fraternal contrast. Norman, taking after his intellectual father, goes off to college, returns home with a desire to teach English, and falls in love with Jessie (Emily Lloyd), a spunky but well-mannered girl from the next town over. Meanwhile, Paul, the wild, instinctual one (he’s by far the more artful fisherman), remains in Montana, becoming a hard-drinking newspaper reporter and reckless gambler; his affair with a saucy half-Cheyenne (Nicole Burdette) gets tongues clucking at the local speakeasy.

The film is sly enough to suggest that it’s the maverick Paul, deep down, who remains closest to his father’s religious spirit. Then, too, Paul is the story’s weak link; he remains a crucially undeveloped character. Brad Pitt, from Thelma & Louise, gives a fiery, cock-of-the-walk performance, and he looks so much like the young Redford that we’re practically invited to imagine him as another gifted golden boy sowing his oats. The movie, however, begins to suggest that Paul is in deep trouble. And if that’s true, we need to see a few scenes from his point of view. Instead, we take in everything through the eyes of the quiet, slightly sullen Norman. It’s easy to feel that the more arresting tale is happening off screen.

For all that, Redford has become a serenely confident director; through his love and understanding of actors, he can bring the emotions of a scene bobbing to the surface. The film, too, has plenty of comedy, notably in the wily performance of Tom Skerritt, who parades his piety with a knowing wink, and in a sequence featuring Jessie’s transplanted California brother (Stephen Shellen), who seems interested in every earthly pleasure but fishing. At its best, A River Runs Through It immerses us in an old-time America where the bonds of community held sin in check. If it sounds as if I’m describing a Country Time Lemonade commercial (or, at the very least, a movie Ronald Reagan could love), the paradox is that Redford invests WASP squareness with elusive degrees of feeling. He makes happiness itself seem dramatic. B+