Picks and Pans Review: Miss Firecracker

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Holly Hunter, Mary Steenburgen

When it comes to true grit, nobody does it better than Hunter. As she proved in Broadcast News and TV's recent Roe vs. Wade, she is a depth charge of determination. Playing women with large ambitions, the small-framed Hunter is part Tennessee Williams's Maggie the Cat, part Little Engine That Could.

In this offbeat and ultimately off-key Southern comedy, Hunter is a small-town Mississippi misfit who craves self-respect. So she enters a local beauty pageant, dying her hair a shade of red that would shame Rhonda Fleming. The character may be cartoonish; Hunter's incisive performance is not. Re-creating her role from Beth Crimes of the Heart) Henley's off-Broadway comedy. Hunter is a gung-ho guide to the playwright's disturbed Dixie, where there is no Southern comfort. Hunter finds the pathos in such pathetic, typical Henley humorisms as 'They say we're all gonna be dying someday. I believe it, too."

The movie is, however, dependent on Hunter's monomania. When she's onscreen, her sense of purpose becomes the movie's. But the script meanders into an ensemble comedy about Hunter's zany cousin, overdone by Tim (Bull Durham) Robbins, her pal Alfre Woodard and Robbins's sister, an ex-beauty queen played with devious wit by Steenburgen, who profits from her best showcase since Melvin and Howard. ("I have deeply enjoyed my life as a beauty," she declares.)

Like the film of Crimes of the Heart, director Thomas Schlamme's adaptation of Miss Firecracker only stresses the limits of Henley's vision. If the movie is no prizewinner, though, Hunter is. When Hollywood learns to exploit her talents, she's going to be a wonder. (PG)

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