Despite, or maybe because of, their superhuman cockiness as performers, rock stars don't tend to make very good actors. On the few occasions one of them has actually gone and directed a movie, the results have been disastrous rambling ego trips like Bob Dylan's ''poetic'' road epic, Renaldo and Clara, or Prince's shilly-shallying rock operettas Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. Given that track record, it's a surprise and a pleasure to report that Falling From Grace, which the proletarian pop rocker John Mellencamp directed from a script by Larry McMurtry, is a movie of heart, subtlety, and dramatic zest.
Mellencamp, in a role clearly meant to reflect the arc of his own career, plays Bud Parks, a country rocker who returns to the Indiana whistle-stop in which he grew up. Accompanied by his wife (Mariel Hemingway) and beautiful little daughter, Bud signs autographs for the locals and greets his friends and relatives with a warm, monkeyish grin. He seems effusive and generous, a man too fundamentally sane to let success inflate his vanity. Then he runs into an old flame (Kay Lenz), who is now married to one of his brothers. She's the past he can't let go of, and their affair is rekindled even though Bud knows he's trashing everything he cares about.
McMurtry's script is like a less pretentious version of the one he wrote for Texasville, his humdrum 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show. Mellencamp sets up the action without a lot of fuss. He knows the fun of a movie like this one lies in its rogues' gallery of small-town characters, each nursing his or her own private dreams, gripes, and obsessions. Lenz, sultry and wised up, gives a sharp performance as a woman who has grown utterly pragmatic about the pursuit of pleasure. Claude Akins, flashing an insidious leer, has powerful moments as Bud's hateful, domineering father, who needs to destroy whatever he can't possess; the actor uses his shocking girth like a wall. And Mellencamp, showing us the dissatisfied child inside the ebullient rock star, zeroes in on a dark side of celebrity that feels absolutely fresh. His Bud descends into moody, self-destructive loutishness, but only because he's torn between identities: He doesn't know whether to get back to his roots or to cut them off. Falling From Grace has some false notes the ending veers off into masochistic grandiloquence but it also has moments a seasoned director would be proud to put his name on. B