As a rule, Norman Jewison makes movies in one of three basic modes: quirky but interesting (Moonstruck); earnest and well-intentioned (A Soldier’s Story); and jaw-droppingly awful (Rollerball). With In Country, based on Bobbie Ann Mason’s acclaimed coming-of-age novel, we find Jewison working in modes two and three simultaneously. Which is a shame, really, because the story — a look at how the children of Vietnam veterans are coming to terms with history — deserves to be told.
Unfortunately, Jewison botches it at every opportunity, giving what should have been a realistic slice of regional Americana all the gritty believability of a Dukes of Hazzard episode. The Vietnam flashbacks, for instance, look as if they were shot on a studio back lot set for some ’50s science fiction flick. And the major dramatic moments are telegraphed with the obviousness of Victorian melodrama. This is the kind of movie in which characters make portentous speeches punctuated, literally, by Wagnerian crashes of thunder and lightning.
The cast is no help. Bruce Willis, as an alienated vet, tries hard, but you’re constantly aware you’re watching the star of Moonlighting hiding beneath a Fu Manchu mustache. And Emily Lloyd, the young British actress who was so good in Wish You Were Here, is a major embarrassment; in struggling to master a Southern accent, she sounds as if she’s doing a parody of Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Only Judith Ivey, as Willis’ old flame, exudes the slightest whiff of reality.
In Country ends (as Mason’s original began) with a pilgrimage to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; it is a tribute to the emotional power of the place that the scene is truly moving. But it’s not enough to make you forgive what Jewison has done to a good book and an important subject.