Originally scheduled for release in 1993, Gus Van Sant's adaptation of Tom Robbins's cult novel was pulled after a disastrous screening at the Toronto Film Festival. The new version, released theatrically in mid-1994 after recutting, is still so problematic that it's hard to believe it
constitutes an improvement over the original.
COWGIRLS is the story of Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman), whose unusually large thumbs have enabled her to become the world's greatest hitchhiker. She's also a model for a feminine hygiene company, run by a campy transsexual known only as the Countess (John Hurt). The Countess, who's fond of Sissy,
introduces her to an asthmatic artist, Julian (Keanu Reeves), who has an attack the first time he meets her. Sissy then heads for the Countess's ranch, the Rubber Rose, to film a commercial. There she encounters a variety of independent, sexually adventurous cowgirls, headed by the free-spirited
Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix, in her film debut). Sissy has a fling with Bonanza, as well as with The Chink (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita), a mysterious alleged wise man who lives on a cliff overlooking the Ranch. Besides taking over the Ranch and forcing out its overseer, the dictatorial Miss Adrian
(Angie Dickinson), the cowgirls attempt to save the last surviving flock of American whooping cranes, leading to a showdown with armed federal authorities. After Bonanza is shot in the act of surrender, Sissy moves in with The Chink and has his baby.
Even if Tom Robbins's facetious, meandering book is virtually unfilmable (and dated, given its 70s-era homage to free love and drugs), COWGIRLS is still astonishingly incoherent. It's doubtful that anyone unfamiliar with the novel will follow the narrative, which was never much more than a
vehicle for Robbins's goofy philosophical musings to begin with. Robbins himself provides a voice-over narration for the story, and some of his prose survives, but not enough to give a shape or purpose to the film. Story lines that might have enlivened the movie are missing entirely: Sissy's
romance with Julian, a Native American artist, is jettisoned (which makes Keanu Reeves's cameo all the more mysterious), as is most of Sissy's master/teacher relationship with the Chink, one of the book's more appealing characters.
The performances are almost uniformly listless. Normally reliable actors like Lorraine Bracco and John Hurt seem unsure what kind of performance is expected of them--the bland Uma Thurman is the worst offender here--while others are under-utilized (Roseanne Arnold, Buck Henry, and William
Burroughs have fleeting cameo roles). No one seems to be having any fun, including the normally masterful Van Sant (DRUGSTORE COWBOY), whose direction is unstructured, confusing, and lackadaisical. Diligent viewers who sit through the home video, however, are in for a treat at the end: the zestful
music video for "Just Keep Me Moving," one of many songs k.d. lang wrote and performed for the soundtrack. (Sexual situations, adult situations, substance abuse, violence, profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: Originally scheduled for release in 1993, Gus Van Sant's adaptation of Tom Robbins's cult novel was pulled after a disastrous screening at the Toronto Film Festival. The new version, released theatrically in mid-1994 after recutting, is still so problemati… (more)