The Grass Harp

(Charles Matthau, USA, 1996)


Jack Lemmon makes his screen entrance, twitching and gesticulating as in a panto. He is a well-dressed dandy with a moustache, a fancy man. He has wormed his way into the heart of a rich old maid, and we (along with every other character in the story) can divine his nefarious plan …

Is this a creaky, Technicolor melodrama from 1955 caught on a late-night television re-run? No, it is a bizarre, contemporary film called The Grass Harp, adapted from an autobiographical novel by Truman Capote.

What makes this movie bizarre is its shamelessly old-fashioned air. Although clearly influenced by such Depression-era period pieces as Rambling Rose (1991) and King of the Hill (1993), director Charles Matthau (Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, 1989) opts for a mode of narrative, and a sense of filmic style, that would have looked primitive even in the ’50s.

Collin (Edward Furlong) is a blank boy who keeps telling us in a Wonder Years-type voice-over about how his world is changing in scary and thrilling ways. The images tell a far plainer tale: staying at the home of his cold aunt Verena (Sissy Spacek) and her eccentric sister Dolly (Piper Laurie), Collin observes the mild dramas that perturb a conservative small-town community.

There are undeniably touching moments and sentiments here that echo far superior films (Stealing Beauty [1996] and Guantanamera [1994]) – particularly the scenes devoted to Dolly’s belated romantic awakening. But too many of the roles (Mary Steenburgen as an evangelist, Nell Carter as a black maid) are insignificant or plain irritating, and every key point of the story is laboriously spelt out and reiterated.

Would it be fairer to call this film classical rather than old-fashioned? Maybe, but if you want to see a really fine classical vignette of family life, I suggest you race to your nearest video store and hire Robert Mulligan’s superb, little known film, The Man in the Moon (1991).

© Adrian Martin October 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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