When talented people go painfully wrong, the results can be more trying to sit through than run-of-the-mill hackwork. In Leaving Normal, a buddy movie with a soft, runny center, two women who have absolutely nothing in common head out on the road in search of life, love, and, you know, themselves. Marianne (Meg Tilly) has a knack for picking loutish, abusive husbands (she has just walked out on her second one). Girlish and innocent, she looks at the world with a waif’s pale gaze and speaks…shyly, in…quiet, halting…bursts, as if she were scared someone were going to hit her.
Darly (Christine Lahti), whom Marianne first runs into on a deserted street in the nowhere town of Normal, Wyo., is a graduate of the Hollywood Academy of Brassy Working-Class Waitresses. How do we know what Darly’s about? Simple: She’s loud, she curses like a truck driver, she wears cheap jewelry and skintight leopard-spotted tops. Oh, and she’s cynical — she gave up on romance long ago. Beneath that trashy exterior, though, you know her little ol’ heart’s a-breakin’.
The director, Edward Zwick, who’s best known as the cocreator of thirtysomething, has learned how to use the camera to achieve intimacy with his actors. Unfortunately, he also has a coy, huggy side, and in Leaving Normal he gives in to it completely. Marianne and Darly wear their hearts on their sleeves, on their pants — on any available surface.
The two meet, bond, and head for the Alaskan wilderness. The movie is like Thelma & Louise redone as a whimsical counterculture tearjerker, with dialogue that manages to be arch and ”inspirational” at the same time. Marianne: ”How long am I supposed to keep going?” Darly: ”Oh, I don’t know — till you get there, I guess.” If groaners like that don’t thrill you, Zwick keeps slathering on Bruce Hornsby-ish piano-and-guitar chords, for that warm, buttery, everything’s-gonna-be-all-right kind of feeling.
For much of Leaving Normal, Christine Lahti has a smug, pleased-with-herself aura that feeds directly into the movie’s bogusness. Yet when the two women reach Alaska, making camp near a town full of lovable eccentrics, she digs into Darly’s anger, self-disgust, and furtive despair. For a few moments, we’re reminded of what Lahti is capable of as an actress: Her big scene, in which Darly comes close to degrading herself for money, has an emotional rawness the rest of the movie is missing. The mood doesn’t last, though. Before long, Leaving Normal turns huggy again, reminding you that it’s hard to laugh — or cry — when your skin is crawling.