Actor-director Gary Sinise's respectful new version of John Steinbeck's Depression-era masterpiece is cautiously revisionistic, but with little effect. The look of the film offers an easy respite from the grimness of the story, but at a definite cost to its dramatic impact.
Wily, pragmatic George (Gary Sinise) and his infantile brute of a comrade, Lennie (John Malkovich), are bound, despite their wide differences, by a mutual need for companionship. They dream of having their own little ranch where they can be their own masters and Lennie can tend the small, furry
creatures that he loves but is constantly destroying, so unaware is he of his own strength. On the run from the law, they find work on a migrant farm in California's San Joaquin Valley and, for a while, it seems as if their dream may eventually become a reality.
Their hopes are shattered, however, by the boss's bullying son Curley (Casey Siemaszko), who torments Lennie relentlessly, and by Curley's sexually frustrated wife (Sherilyn Fenn), whose need for companionship leads to her destruction at Lennie's unwitting, bewildered hands. Fearing George's
wrath, Lennie escapes to the nearby woods. Realizing once and for all that there's no future with his simple-minded friend, George catches up to Lennie before the posse does and kills his friend in an act of euthenasia.
Of Mice and Men was first published in 1937 and was adapted for the screen two years later in a classic version directed by Lewis Milestone. Sinise, a co-founder of Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater, seems to bring little to this new version other than an overriding concern with picturesque
images: crystalline blue skies smile over shimmering fields of golden wheat, while the actors' tanned faces and worn denim clothes seem fresh out of a Ralph Lauren ad. Reading the book, one is constantly reminded of the poverty and desperation of the characters. In Sinise's cinematic retelling,
there's not enough degrading dust or blistering heat; though the bunkhouse may be ramshackle, the gorgeous vistas which surround it make it seem a bucolic paradise.
As George, Sinise gives a performance almost identical to the one he did on stage as another Steinbeck hero, Tom Joad, in the Steppenwolf production of The Grapes of Wrath. He's a peculiarly withdrawn actor, more of an observer than an active participant, redolent of a Method cool which is
inappropriate to the period. You never sense the conflicts and frustrations underpinning both his loyalty to Lennie and his desire to escape.
Malkovich, who is beginning to rival Charles Laughton for sheer take-no-prisoners hamminess, has a field day as Lennie. He emphasizes his bulging, wall-eyed look, makes his mouth an "o" of perpetual astonishment, furrows his substantial forehead and relishes Lennie's halting, childlike speech.
(The deathless line, "Tell me about the rabbits, George!" only gains in camp value here.) The viewer may share much of George's exasperation with him, but it's difficult to judge whether it's the character or the portrayal which is the more irritating. The scene wherein Lennie crushes the hand of
Curley (played with fine, snarling cockiness by Siemaszko, who gives the best performance in the film) has a frightening intensity--the Big Scary Malkovich Moment you've come to expect--but, for the most part, his performance is an egocentric stunt.
The director falters, too, with the nubile Sherilyn Fenn (RUBY, WILD AT HEART), who seemed ideally cast as Curley's wife. She is apparently under-directed, her natural sensuality buried beneath the heavy period makeup. (Fenn displays nothing like the teasing suggestiveness she radiated on TV's
"Twin Peaks.") Ray Walston gives the kind of performance that is often nominated for Academy Awards--irascible, sympathetic and accompanied by a piteous, doomed dog. Joe Morton has a big scene as an embittered hunchback, which one assumes is Sinise's revisionist bow to political correctness, but
the sequence, though powerful, fails to work.
As previously noted, all the farm hands are too generically well groomed--especially John Terry, who makes a very glamorous Slim, a hay-baling paragon of taciturn wisdom to rival Gary Cooper in his salad days. (Violence, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Actor-director Gary Sinise's respectful new version of John Steinbeck's Depression-era masterpiece is cautiously revisionistic, but with little effect. The look of the film offers an easy respite from the grimness of the story, but at a definite cost to it… (more)