By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 16, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

The new film version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is lyrical, stirring, and beautifully acted — a seamless adaptation of a novel many will recall with almost too much familiarity. The 37-year-old director-star, Gary Sinise, evokes the cleansing spareness of Steinbeck’s world. The best reason to see the movie, though, is that Sinise also grasps — and revels in — the story’s hefty pop hook. He understands that the key to Of Mice and Men‘s endurance as a social-protest saga lies in the freakish appeal exerted by the character of Lennie, the sweet-souled simpleton who literally doesn’t know his own strength.

As Lennie, John Malkovich gives the kind of daring performance that either soars or sinks like a punctured balloon; this one soars. Speaking in lispy, stammering baby talk, his beady eyes focused in childish wonder at whatever’s in front of him, Malkovich makes Lennie a touching contradiction — a diaphanous giant. He’s like Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in the scene where Karloff plays with a little girl shortly before murdering her. Lennie enjoys cuddling furry little animals — he likes the way they feel — yet often they end up dead in his hands. When he sees a woman he thinks looks soft and pretty, he wants to touch her too. Slow to anger, yet impossible to control when he does get angry, Lennie, in Steinbeck’s scheme, is the symbolic essence of the American worker, the man who labors endlessly and asks for nothing because he never quite realizes all he’s giving.

Sinise himself plays the resourceful straight-shooter George, Lennie’s guardian and traveling companion. The two end up at Tyler Ranch, a sun-drenched California farm, and encounter trouble in the form of Curley (Casey Siemaszko), the boss’ petty-sadist son, and Curley’s wife (Sherilyn Fenn), a bored vixen who throws herself at just about any farmhand around. As a character, Curley’s wife has been slightly modernized; we now see her desperation. Still, as Fenn plays her, coyly unfurling her legs and flashing her ripe red smile, she gives the story a touch of lurid heat, helping turn Steinbeck’s earnest parable into a leftist-proletariat version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The one aspect of the material that hasn’t aged well — and it’s a major one — is the question of what keeps George bonded to Lennie in the first place. Steinbeck was writing about a system of American exploitation that turned workers into borderline slaves. In the book, George stays with Lennie because that way he at least has somebody; they’re stronger together than they would be apart. Sinise is a magnetic actor — lean and intense, he’s like a more volatile Gary Cooper — yet I’m afraid it’s his very charisma that gums things up. George seems so wily and self-sufficient that it isn’t clear, apart from his sentimental sense of honor, why he needs this particular companion. Nevertheless, when the two are finally separated by fate, his regret is palpable. And, to a surprising degree, we share it. We, too, feel as if we’ve lost a friend. B+