Picks and Pans Review: Cannery Row

updated 03/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/01/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The novels of John Steinbeck have inspired films that were good (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden), bad (Tortilla Flat) and indifferent (The Wayward Bus), but none has been so misbegotten as this meshing of two Steinbeck works—Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). Both books centered on a shut-down Monterey, Calif. sardine cannery and a community of hookers, bums and dreamers in the 1940s. It's a world that first-time director David Ward, who also wrote the screenplay, takes pains to re-create. He is luckiest in his cast. Nick Nolte makes a forthright Doc, the baseball pro turned biologist who provides for his friends by selling marine animals to school labs. Debra Winger (in a role that was to have been played by Raquel Welch until she got sacked) is purposeful as the doxy who loves him. Winger's Urban Cowboy zip may be inappropriate for a period piece, but it's welcome, since the film's pace is funereal. Every shot is lingered over as if the director were trying to squeeze art into it. John Huston's beery narration doesn't help. Worse is the set—a massive, jerry-built array of storefronts and connecting overpasses. Constructed on a huge MGM sound stage formerly used for Esther Williams epics, the set screams artificiality instead of atmosphere. In his Oscar-winning script for The Sting, Ward showed imagination to spare. Here, like the waters off Cannery Row, he's fished out. (PG)

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