By Owen Gleiberman
January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

The Whole Wide World


THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (Sony Pictures Classics, PG) This daringly offbeat small-town Texas romance — a love story shot through with darkness — is essentially a duet for its two talented stars, and they make the most of it. Vincent D’Onofrio, in his first good role since Full Metal Jacket, plays the ’30s pulp writer Robert E. Howard, fabled creator of Conan the Barbarian, as a blustery young Southern Turk whose exaggerated swagger and hungry-sexy gleam seem, at first, charming in their brazenness. Renee Zellweger is Novalyne Price, the spiky local lass drawn to his self-dramatizing bravado, and she makes us feel the excitement of his attraction. But then she spies him at the typewriter, bellowing out the words to one of his Conan tales in a compositional rage. It’s a shocking scene, because it reveals that Howard’s eroticized fantasies of a rippling primeval warrior are really projections of his boxed-in inner life — he’s a pulp virtuoso because he believes in this stuff. D’Onofrio, cast as this ferociously divided dime-store Hemingway, creates one of the most vividly neurotic portraits of a writer ever put on film. And Zellweger proves that her lovely performance in Jerry Maguire is no fluke. Playing a woman in love with someone too arrested to love her back, she has a radiant sanity here, an ardor that’s willing to walk the far edge of pain. Her small, squinchy eyes become pure pools of expression. A-

The Whole Wide World

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