By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Like a traffic accident or a Dan Quayle presidential bid, the spectacle of a truly great director making a truly bad movie exerts a certain disreputable intrigue. Even as you’re struggling to sit through the turkey on screen, another part of you is staring, drop-jawed, repeating one question like a Zen koan: How could an artist this gifted go this wrong?

Two very different answers are provided by Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Fine Line, R) and Bill Forsyth’s Being Human (Warner Bros., PG-13), which share the dubious distinction of being just about the worst films by major filmmakers I have ever seen. Cowgirls, a flaky-surreal adaptation of Tom Robbins’ 1976 feminist hipster road novel, finds the director of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho lost in the ozone of his own private whimsies. Being Human, in which the creator of Local Hero casts Robin Williams as five men named Hector in five different periods of history, demonstrates what can happen when a director with a gossamer comic touch tries to become commercial- the movie is so flat and banal it’s like a Mel Brooks parody in which someone forgot to put in the jokes. Can it be a coincidence that the release dates of both these films have been postponed numerous times? You get the feeling someone was scared of showing them.

The single worst decision made by Van Sant in filming Even Cowgirls Get the Blues may have been choosing to adapt the book in the first place. To say that Robbins’ novel hasn’t aged well is an understatement: It was never more than a rambling exercise in counterculture chic, held together only by the scattershot charm of Robbins’ socio-mystical digressions. In the movie, those musings are gone; all we get is the nonstory. Uma Thurman brings her willowy Botticelli beauty to the role of Sissy Hankshaw, the rawboned Candide who was born to hitchhike because of her striking physical deformity (or is it an evolution?): two elongated, phallic thumbs. Standing on the edge of the highway, her hip cocked, a giant digit thrust out proudly, Thurman is the living image of sexy ’70s freedom. But all she is is an image. Sissy passes through the decadent New York demimonde and ends up joining the insurrectionary cowgirls of the Rubber Rose Ranch, a down-home feminist collective in which women have made men irrelevant by usurping their most mythical macho role. There she meets a cowgirl named Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix), who raises her consciousness the old-fashioned way: by hopping into her sleeping bag.

There are no characters in Cowgirls, only glib metaphors (women are like whooping cranes-beautiful and endangered). And Van Sant, who at his best has an Altmanesque flair for fuzzy naturalism, undercuts his strengths by playing Robbins’ already specious material for a kind of ramshackle absurdism. John Hurt shows up as someone called the Countess, an old-style raving queen who can’t stand the smell of women (this from the openly gay Van Sant?). Hurt, at least, tries to give a performance. The other ”hip” star cameos amount to a running celebrity one-upmanship game, with meaningless appearances by Sean Young, Crispin Glover, Roseanne Arnold, Buck Henry, and Ed Begley Jr. threatening to turn the movie into a cinematic version of Interview magazine.

What ultimately undermines Cowgirls is its tone of willed facetiousness. Here, as in the misbegotten Shakespeare sequences of My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant seems perversely aware of what an anti-entertainment stunt he’s engaged in. Like Alex Cox, the brilliant director of Sid and Nancy who despised the idea of selling out so much that he torpedoed his own career, Van Sant appears to be flirting with the notion of self-sabotage. The patronizing archness of Cowgirls seems directed, finally, at the audience itself-at anyone who expects a movie to add up to something humane and involving.

As sweet-spirited as Van Sant is acerbic, Bill Forsyth in his best films (Local Hero, the tragicomic masterpiece Housekeeping) walks an invisible tightrope, tracing the ethereal line between his characters’ saucy-deadpan personalities and their moonstruck hearts. Being human is what all his movies are about. Being Human, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be about anything: Its five astonishingly limp parables might have been spun by a depressed Aesop who forgot to take his Prozac.

Is there anything in movies more precious-and less convincing-than Robin Williams, with his little downturned mouth, trying to act mild and sheepish and vaguely unhappy? Each segment of Being Human works the same drab formula, casting Williams as a sad-sack Everyman (Roman slave, Portuguese shipwreck victim, divorced dad) and dribbling toward a soggy noodle of a punchline. He starts out as a pelt-covered cave dweller who watches his wife and children taken by a gang of ruffians and then stands on the shore, having lost everything (the end). Later, he’s a medieval Irish peasant who follows a Dutch-speaking beauty to Holland and decides he can’t stick around (the end). The last story, set in the present day, is dripping with pop-psych cliches, but for the first time the characters at least seem alive, a reminder of how much Forsyth’s grace-note style emerges from the conversational quirks of contemporary neurotics.

Visually, Being Human lacks Forsyth’s usual shimmer; the sets are so perfunctory I kept waiting for John Cleese to show up and punch a hole in one of them. And the stories themselves dawdle into oblivion. Aside from the image of Robin Williams acting glum, all that lends the movie a shred of unity is the hilariously awful narration, a series of vacuous New Age pensees read by Theresa Russell in a voice of such overbearing coyness that she makes Garrison Keillor sound like a roughneck. A few samples: ”’Well,’ said the story to itself, ‘I guess I must be a love story!”’ ”He had not needed to learn to lie.” ”By and by, the living lovers loved.” Unlike Cowgirls, which in its very obnoxiousness bears the fluky stamp of its creator, Being Human seems to have been made by a director who underwent a mental short circuit. It’s a Christmas tree no one bothered to string with ornaments. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: D Being Human: F

Being Human

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