May 22nd, 2007
What a strangely enjoyable movie. Directed by Gus Van Sant, it’s an episodic road movie featuring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as gay street kids in Portland, Seattle, Idaho, various dreamscapes, and… uh… Rome, Italy.
Phoenix’s character, Mike Waters, suffers from narcolepsy. He falls into a violent sleep in response to stressful situations, and quite often wakes up somewhere else, having been loaded into a car and taken there by helpful strangers. I think this drifting from one thing to the next, not really knowing how you got there, is a common feeling some people have at certain times in their lives - and an important theme of the movie.
Other than that, it’s about the search for love and the road home… and really, what else is there?
Not a theme, but more a piece of risky theatrical business, is the extended section where a bunch of street kids live in an abandoned hotel with a fat older man named Bob. Bob drinks Falstaff beer, and that, along with the Shakespearean language the characters often fall into, is the key.
Much of the acting in this film is extraordinary, especially that of the doomed River Phoenix (brother of Walk the Line’s Joaquin Phoenix), who would die of a drug overdose two years later. His performance is fearless and achingly vulnerable, like a modern James Dean. He even looks like Dean. Keanu Reeves, who I think is underrated as an actor, is also excellent as the son of the mayor, slumming until he gets his inheritance and leaves the street life behind. Many of the other performances have the naturalness of improvisation. (Trivia note: The blond curly-haired street kid who looks like Flea, the bass player for the California rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, is in fact Flea.)
It’s hard to say why this movie works. Gus Van Sant went on to direct the mainstream films Good Will Hunting, Psycho, and Finding Forrester, but more recently he has rediscovered his art-house roots with such movies as Gerry and Elephant. In many ways My Own Private Idaho seems like student work, especially the Falstaff/Prince Hal stuff, which doesn’t have much to do with the other parts of the film and could so easily have fallen flat. (Some will find that it does fall flat, making the movie ridiculous; but I kind of like it.)
But why does the action go to Italy? Was there a travel grant? For that matter, why does it go to Idaho? Why are the characters gay? Is it just because Van Sant is? Does it matter that they are? (Answer: no.)
Anyway - if you haven’t seen this movie I think you should hurry up, because it is a modern classic.