By Ty Burr
Updated April 29, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

If movies were stocks, who could be blamed for sinking the nest egg into A Perfect World? Director-costar Clint Eastwood was coming off the multi-Oscar career high of Unforgiven. Laura Dern had just appeared in the monster hit Jurassic Park. And Kevin Costner is just about the most beloved movie star in the country.

Sorry-you would have lost your shirt. When the dust settled, A Perfect World had grossed $31 million at the box office, an astoundingly paltry figure given the names on the marquee. On video, A Perfect World will seem a cheaper investment, and more people may be inclined to check it out. They’ll still come away dissatisfied, though, because this plays like an object lesson in how to make an uncommercial movie. Is that necessarily bad? Depends on what the filmmaker intended. Does its commercial failure say as much about audiences and their expectations as it does about the movie? Of course it does.

So what does A Perfect World do wrong, anyway? And is that to its artistic credit or discredit?

It’s not a ”ride.” Well, actually, it is: The whole damn film takes place in moving cars. But it’s not the overproduced Pavlovian sensorium that audiences have come to expect from Hollywood. A Perfect World has the structure of a chase flick, but it’s really a terse chamber drama about the relationship between escaped convict Butch Haynes (Costner) and the 8-year-old kid (T.J. Lowther) he takes as a hostage. There’s not much soundtrack music to nudge us with borrowed emotions. The prevailing tone is flat and Texas-dry. Like Butch and little Phillip, we’re on our own out here. It’s an uncomfortable sensation, perhaps purposefully so.

Kevin Costner plays a bad guy. And not even a snarling showboat bad guy, which at least would win over the critics. No, Butch is a cold-blooded killer who’s also a sensitive father figure. He has blood on his hands and he knows the responsibility that goes with that. In other words, he’s a bit like Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, except that Eastwood was able to put the force of a long career behind the schematic role of William Munny. Costner can’t do that yet, even though there’s a gratifyingly pissy impatience here that he hasn’t shown since Bull Durham.

Costner and Eastwood have one scene together. As Butch bullets across the Panhandle, he’s chased by Texas Rangers with Red Garnett (Eastwood) in the lead. Somewhat perversely, the two don’t meet up until the very last minutes. Worse, the scenes with Garnett have no reason to exist, other than to fritter away tension with corny comic byplay. Eastwood should have cast someone else in the role-Brian Dennehy, say-and whittled the scenes down to their proper perspective.

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World. Laura Dern is cornering the market on thankless women’s roles. In Jurassic, she played paleontological second fiddle to Sam Neill and a bunch of peckish dinosaurs. Here, she’s Sally Gerber, an expert on criminals, assigned to advise Garnett. He wants nothing to do with her, of course, until she lays out the details of Butch’s sorry life in a remarkable first-person monologue (she’s a Method criminologist, apparently). That one scene constitutes the best acting in A Perfect World, but it’s all that Dern gets to do.

On tape, it’s like looking at a mural through a pinhole. Eastwood filmed in super-widescreen for a reason: to better frame those horizontal Lone Star vistas. But the pan-and-scan videotape version, in a desperate attempt to get all the crucial visual information in, weaves like a drunk on an obstacle course. Purists can buy the letterboxed laserdisc version if they’re seriously bugged, but it’s too bad the average renter will see literally only half the movie.

What’s the point? Um, I’m not sure. That beating on our children may turn them into confused career criminals? Simplistic, but hard to argue with. That kids aren’t as innocent as we like to think? More interesting, but Lowther, while very likable, isn’t the actor to pull it off. What A Perfect World ends up saying most clearly is that nothing-and, more important, nobody-can guarantee a movie’s success, as art, as commerce, or as both. You can hear the ulcers acting up from Malibu to Morton’s on that one.

A Perfect World

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Clint Eastwood