''The Straight Story'' isn't a departure from the offbeat director's norm, says Bruce Fretts, but rather a return to form

By Bruce Fretts
Updated January 06, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

David Lynch is back in the Oscar race

For the first time in more than a decade, David Lynch is in the Oscar race again. The film that may put him back on the Academy’s map, ”The Straight Story,” has been hailed as an inspired change of pace, an uplifting, G-rated slice of life from the maker of such twistedly explicit shockers as ”Blue Velvet” and ”Wild at Heart.”

But on closer examination, ”The Straight Story” feels more like a return to form — specifically to ”The Elephant Man,” his stunning 1980 drama about the grotesquely disfigured John Merrick, which earned Oscar nominations for best picture, director, and actor (John Hurt). Like that film, ”The Straight Story” tells the moving true tale of a man who refuses to be counted out of life — Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an ailing 73-year-old who rode a lawnmower across the Midwest for six weeks to visit his long-estranged, stroke-stricken brother (Harry Dean Stanton).

After losing his way with increasingly incomprehensible exercises in the bizarre like ”Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and ”Lost Highway,” Lynch wisely chose a fact-based film to bring him back down to earth. You can see what attracted Lynch to John Roach and Mary Sweeney’s script (it’s the first feature he’s directed that he hasn’t also written). Along his trek, ”Straight” encounters several Lynchian oddballs, among them a woman distraught because she’s constantly running over deer and a pair of squabbling sibling mechanics named the Olsen twins.

Yet Farnsworth’s straightforward performance keeps the film solidly grounded in reality. The onetime stuntman’s unactorly turn has, ironically, made him a cinch for a Best Actor nomination. His role recalls Geraldine Page’s Oscar-winning work in 1985’s ”The Trip to Bountiful,” another sublime small film about a spirited senior citizen determined to make one final journey.

While ”The Straight Story” may not have made enough money to earn Best Picture consideration (it’s grossed only $4.4 million), Lynch has a serious shot at Best Director, a category which often includes a maverick or two — like when he was nominated for ”Blue Velvet.” Also in the running are cinematographer Freddie Francis (who also shot ”The Elephant Man”), composer Angelo Badalamenti (whose folksy score is just as haunting as his ”Twin Peaks” theme), and production designer Jack Fisk (whose wife, Sissy Spacek, plays Straight’s mentally scarred daughter). Plus Sweeney (who has a son with Lynch) could earn two nods, for cowriting and editing the film.

”I’m not dead yet,” Straight declares before embarking on his trip. ”The Straight Story” proves that, artistically speaking, David Lynch isn’t either.