A few laughs, a few tears but also a few too many yawns are to be found in Edward Zwick's LEAVING NORMAL, a road movie that mainlines sugary whimsicality.
Marianne Johnson (Meg Tilly) yearns to settle down after a childhood spent moving around with her wandering parents and sister. But she can't stay put, even in adulthood. Married and living in Normal, Wyoming, she takes yet another powder after her husband takes a swing at her. On her way out of
town--she's headed for Portland, Oregon, where her sister has settled down with a husband and two kids--Marianne meets up with hardbitten cocktail waitress Darly Peters (Christine Lahti), who's just found out that her former husband has died and left her a house and a small plot of land in
Eternity Bluff, Alaska. Arriving in Portland, Marianne finds that her sister is too settled, a perfect suburban matron who can't keep from making Marianne feel inferior for her feckless ways. Impulsively, Marianne lights out again with Darly.
On the way they have adventures--hitchhiking after Darly's car breaks down and is stripped while the women go to get help; conning a randy truck driver (Maury Chaykin) and his sensitive partner (Lenny Von Dohlen) out of a ride and some money; travelling with a corpulent ex-waitress (Patrika Darbo)
searching for true love who finds it in the unlikeliest place. In Alaska, Darly finds that there is no house--her husband never built it--and the daughter she abandoned 18 years earlier has disappeared. Her stock drops further when she loses her job--as a cocktail waitress in the only bar in
town--after groin-kicking a guy (James Gammon) who gets ugly with her.
Darly is ready to leave town, but she finds Marianne reluctant. She's gotten a good job at the local hardware store and has befriended two homeless Eskimo teenagers whom she is teaching to read and write. Marianne and Darly have a falling out, leading Darly to turn a trick with the barroom masher,
who's offered her money for dancing and sex, on her way out of town. Darly can't go through with it, but the masher is moved to give her two hundred dollars anyway. Darly returns "home" to Marianne, who has stayed on even after the sensitive truck driver has come to take her away. Together they
build the house and have a happy, if offbeat, homelife with the two homeless kids.
THELMA AND LOUISE it ain't, but as far as it goes, LEAVING NORMAL is a pleasant ride. Tilly (AGNES OF GOD, VALMONT) has made a career out of playing sweetly ditzy flower-children like the character she essays here. But it wears remarkably well and Tilly remains one of the most watchable actresses
around. Lahti also does well with a similarly one-note character she's also played to a fare-thee-well in films like HOUSEKEEPING and JUST BETWEEN FRIENDS. But it's an uphill battle throughout for the cast to overcome the uninspired, laboriously quirky characters overrunning Edward Solomon's
screenplay, from Darbo's amusing turn as the unflaggingly optimistic fat girl to Gammon's masher with a soft spot for a sad story and Van Dohlen's lovestruck truck driver who writes bad poetry on the side.
Hindering their efforts, director Edward Zwick (GLORY, ABOUT LAST NIGHT) betrays too much of his "Thirtysomething" TV background in his tendency to fragment the action into annoying, elliptical 8-minute segments while deflating everything and everybody in sight into facile running jokes in need
only of a laugh track. He tends to steer clear of anything that might have made LEAVING NORMAL distinctive, such as any exploration of Marianne's relationship with her sister, which at the beginning seems to be the film's subject only to become just another occasion for stale gags when Marianne
arrives in Portland. Even the relationship between Darly and Marianne never gets far beyond its odd-couple premise. When all else fails, Zwick pulls back for one of those cosmic landscape shots that look pretty at first but only become redundant after a while.
Indeed, a spirit of redundancy pervades the entire film, considering how overworked quirkiness in the American Northwest has become via TV's "Northern Exposure" and "Twin Peaks." Despite its standout cast, LEAVING NORMAL is more whimsical weirdness where no more is needed. (Adult situations,profanity.)
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