Interracial love stories tend to leave a sanctimonious aftertaste: The very act of presenting a mixed love affair as ''courageous'' and ''special'' is, in fact, a regressive, conservative one. Even as we nod in righteousness at what we're seeing, we're being made acutely aware of race, of color. The taboo hasn't really been broken it's just that now we're meant to congratulate ourselves for having the temerity to see beyond it.
The audience is never allowed to forget the racial identity of the protagonists in Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field, which may be a reason this early-'60s fable sticks in the craw it's like one of those soggy-liberal, story-of-a-perfect-black-man vehicles they used to fashion for Sidney Poitier. Set in the week following the JFK assassination, the movie follows Lurene Hallett (Michelle Pfeiffer), a chattery Southern belle, as she acts out her devotion to the late President by hopping a Greyhound in her native Dallas and heading for his funeral. Her journey is presented as an act of proto-feminist defiance against her domineering, white-trash husband (Brian Kerwin). On the bus, she meets Paul Cater (Dennis Haysbert), who is soft-spoken, kindly, and black. We're meant to register his straight-ahead gaze and thoughtful, sonorous voice and perceive his Inner Goodness.
Paul has a young daughter in tow, and it soon becomes apparent that he's involved in some sort of mysterious kidnapping scheme. When the bus crashes, he and Lurene are thrown together in a cross-country odyssey that encompasses issues of trust, survival, and, finally, love. Lurene is drawn to Paul out of maternal concern for his little girl; then she learns of his predicament, and her feelings blossom. As for Paul, he is put in the tricky position of traveling with a beautiful white woman, which he knows may be suicide.
Love Field is earnest, compassionate, smoothly directed, and something of a crock. Despite its humanist veneer, the movie, at heart, is a soft-pedaled thriller, with too many garish twists and turns. And Lurene and Paul are simply too brave, soulful, and well meaning to be believed: The scene in which their friendship climaxes with a steamy kiss might be more convincing if it didn't feel like the meeting of two saints. The best reason to see the movie is Pfeiffer, who gives a finely modulated performance, showing us the delicate tug-of-war between Lurene's rigid homespun values and her better nature. Yet those values are defeated a little too easily; by the end, even the layered emotionalism of Pfeiffer's work is blanketed by the film's need to see her as a role model. Love Field is designed to give audiences an easy way to feel good about themselves. It sprinkles its characters' very ordinariness with liberal fairy dust. C+