A look at two video versions of surprise bestsellers

By Melissa Pierson
April 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

For women, regarding men, fantasy tends to come in two flavors: true love as a total merging of souls and, barring that, revenge. Two movies out on video this week attest to the overwhelming popularity of these dual desires. Men in search of mates might note the availability of what could amount to home study aids.

Both The Bridges of Madison County and Waiting to Exhale were, in former lives, surprise best-sellers. The surprise is that anyone was surprised, given their skill in satisfying the aforementioned cravings. In the case of Bridges, it was a foregone conclusion that the movie version of Robert James Waller’s novel would also be successful, given the participation of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. But although Waiting, Terry McMillan’s novel about four disgruntled African-American friends who learn to stand up to their jerky men, had been bought by just about every black woman (and more than a few whites) in the country, people seemed dumbfounded when those same women flocked to the movie.

By now everyone’s gotten the message of Waiting to Exhale, and the video will no doubt find its way into the permanent collection of many of the movie’s fans. They’ll find the home-viewing experience a slightly diminished one, however, since this film gets an extra kick when audiences react together to the combustible attitude of the on-screen heroines, who take their licks, come to their senses, then let the guys have it.

It’s hard to imagine that three women as stupendous looking as Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Lela Rochon — the fourth is the obligatory zaftig pal, Loretta Devine — would lack duly appreciative men, but this movie is not about realism, it’s about retribution. The guys who attach themselves to these Phoenix lovelies don’t have a clue as to what women want. (A hint, guys: Take your time in bed.)

Intended as a catharsis for angry gals who are likewise sick of their lyin’, cheatin’ fellas, the movie succeeds or fails depending on who’s on screen at the moment. Bassett is one of our fiercest actresses — as Houston is one of the blandest — and she knows how to bite into a scene and shake it without pause. By the incendiary conclusion of her rampage through the closet of the husband who’s just left her for a white woman, you may stand up and cheer, even if you are alone in the living room. These moments mitigate the realization that by the predictably extravagant final scene of female bonding, it’s clear these diamonds can’t possibly be real.

The Bridges of Madison County wears its costume gems on the same sleeve as its rubies. But the delicious fantasy the movie aims to fulfill finally overcomes the story’s sentimentality. That beloved fantasy: No matter how ”ordinary” a woman might be, there is one man to whom she will be extraordinary.

Again, you have to put aside the glaring truth that Streep is no average woman, despite her efforts to become Francesca, an Italian immigrant languishing as a dissatisfied Iowa farmwife until the four earthshaking days she spends with Robert, the National Geographic photographer played by Eastwood. How do we know this is a tale about ordinariness transformed by love? It’s right on the video box: the wayward bra strap that says, I’m as disheveled as you, but that won’t bother the right man.

As if in response to the critique leveled by Waiting, Bridges reveals itself as pure feminine-minded erotica by being so long on preamble that the verbal foreplay takes up more than half the movie. Another canny bull’s-eye is Francesca’s not being passively swept off her feet by Robert — both have their hands firmly on the broom.

Director Eastwood has made a movie that is at once honest and hackneyed. On one side it captures the essence of love and longing (and the sensuality of walking through a covered bridge alone on a hot day); there’s nothing better to watch alone in bed when you want a good cry. But on the other side, it attracts useless clichés the way a magnet collects filings. The portentous voiceover, for instance, has Francesca’s grown children reading her diary after her death and, worse still, being inspired to reassess their own marriages.

Yet the shortcomings of both these movies will become meltwater under the heat of a persistent wish to feel such love, if only once. Here is proof that it doesn’t just happen in books. Both movies: B