Picks and Pans Review: Wyatt Earp
The achievement of this western epic is that it remains involving even though it is 3 hours and 15 minutes long, convoluted, bloody, heavy-handed and so given to idle psychoanalysis that it is a lot closer to Freud (Sigmund) than to Ford (John).
In this incarnation, Earp is an anxiety-riven character who can't make a career choice between being a lawman and trying out the crackpot get-rich-quick schemes he keeps coming up with. This makes him uncomfortably close to a cross between Marshal Mall Dillon and Ralph Kramden. All the angst makes the part more amenable to Costner, whose low-key acting style is ill-suited to all-out action. His is a most cerebral fast-gun hero—a man who is capable of bloodthirsty, lawless shooting sprees but who also likes to flaunt his sensitive-guy side by nursing back to health his common-law wife, Winningham, a retired strumpet. It is the death from typhoid fever of Costner's first wife, Annabeth Gish, that sends him into an alcoholic tailspin, which bogs down the middle of the film—a muddle in which Costner shows up in jail without explanation.
Director and cowriter Lawrence Kasdan does provide a possible explanation for Costner's conflicted identity in the person of Hackman as the Earp boys' obtrusive, sanctimonious father. Hackman wanders the landscape, rattling off specious platitudes and butting into his sons' lives—until he is suddenly written out in the middle of the movie.
The movie ends up focusing almost as much on the querulous sisters-in-law as on the Earp brothers. O'Hara, usually a comic actress, is effectively sarcastic and naggy as the wife of Wyatt's older brother, Virgil (Madsen); Williams comes off a lot stronger than does David Andrews, who is nondescript as henpecked brother James; and Winningham makes a convincing whiner.
Kasdan doesn't succumb to the temptation Tombstone's director did: allowing the fascinating Doc Holliday, Earp's historic best friend and a tubercular Georgia dandy, to run off with the picture. Dennis Quaid, while he coughs and mugs up a storm, is quarantined into his supporting role (Rossellini plays his long-suffering mistress). That leaves the focus on Costner, even as the climactic O.K. Corral battle sprawls into something that cries out for UN intervention. Intermittently wussy, constantly tortured and full of Hamletian indecisiveness, this Wyatt Earp isn't your father's western hero, but he's nevertheless a fascinating fellow. (PG-13)