Picks and Pans Review: Great Balls of Fire!
07/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder
If Quaid's performance as Jerry Lee Lewis had been drawn, in Roger Rabbit fashion, it couldn't have been any more of a caricature than it is. He gapes, he mugs, he tosses his head like a de-shnozzed Jimmy Durante, he acts as if he were auditioning for one of those hyperactive '30s cartoons where rodents feverishly dance and play instruments.
Even though it's played mostly as a literal-minded biographical drama, the whole film, directed by Jim (The Big Easy) McBride, has a whacked-out tone, with the surreal tinge of a Busby Berkeley musical. Elvis Presley (incarnated as Michael St. Gerard) is shown watching Lewis on TV, his lip curling in anger. As Quaid, who has just married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra, drives by a group of blacks picketing for civil rights, they make a "shame, shame" sign at him in unison.
That 1957 marriage and the couple of years that preceded and followed it provide the time frame and focus of the film, which was taken from a book by Myra Lewis. McBride and co-writer Jack Baran, associate producer of The Big Easy, seem obsessed with the moralizing attention paid to Lewis's marriage to Myra, the third of Jerry Lee's six wives. Yet the marriage lasted 13 years and in retrospect seems more foolish than interesting.
Ryder, as Myra, seems abashed most of the time. John Doe, of the rock group X, is effectively cynical as Jerry's bassist-buddy-manager, and Alec (Working Girl) Baldwin seems relatively subtle as Lewis's sympathetically portrayed cousin, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
The singing and piano playing on the sound track are by Lewis. Quaid had wanted to do it himself until Lewis overruled him, and this left Quaid little to do except overact when he has so little of dramatic consequence to deal with. That lack of eventfulness is especially striking in view of all that has happened to Lewis since the '50s but is omitted from this film: three marriages, the deaths of two wives, two bankruptcies, a near fatal attack of stomach ulcers, the deaths of two sons and birth of another and any number of downfalls and comebacks. This movie is just a whole lot of nothin' goin' on. (PG-13)