09/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves
The first major film directed by Gus Van Sant, the absorbing Drugstore Cowboy, was a grim, spare story of a drug addict and thief. That was a carefree lark, though, compared to this dismal monument to cynicism.
Phoenix and Reeves, about as far away from mainstream movie territory as you can get, play male bisexual prostitutes in Portland, Oreg. (Hey, dudes, it's Indiana & Ted's Excellent Adventure...Not.) The two actors create vivid characters, but they're so unsympathetic and Van Sant drags them through so many tiresome, pretentious scenes that it begins to look as if Phoenix's narcolepsy isn't part of the plot.
One pivotal character, sometime director William (Winter Kills) Richert, is leader of some slovenly street crooks, yet he is given to quoting Shakespeare. (Van Sant, who wrote the film, acts as if Henry IV, Part I were a treatment for his script.) There are meandering shots of western landscapes, dream sequences and time-lapsing clouds. Phoenix and Reeves end up, willy-nilly, in Italy, where Reeves falls in love with Chiara Caselli.
Van Sant may think profundity lurks in Phoenix's opening line (uttered in the middle of nowhere): "You can always tell where you are by the way the road looks." The line belongs, though, on the list of all-time vacant phrases, right up there with comic Jackie Vernon's mock punch line "A wet bird only flies at night." (R)