Picks and Pans Review: In Country

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Emily Lloyd, Bruce Willis

It's soon apparent that director Norman (Agnes of God) Jewison is leading this film toward what is obviously going to be a big catharsis for his main characters-Vietnam vet Willis and Lloyd, a teenager whose father died in the war. It takes longer to realize Jewison wants to drag his audience along and that he is sure they need to face up to the effects of the war too.

The side effects of the manipulation are annoying—it's easy to start wondering which hidden nerves Jewison and screenwriters Frank (Dog Day Afternoon) Pierson and newcomer Cynthia Cidre think they're hitting whenever a scene changes. And because the film seems to be making a case rather than touching a historical moment, its assumptions seem outdated.

When Bobbie Ann Mason published the novel that the movie comes from, it was 1985—before Platoon, before China Beach, before Vietnam trading cards. You can debate the depth of confrontation, but the war has been at least approached now. In Mason's novel, set in a Kentucky town in 1984, veterans are still pariahs.

If the movie comes off as an unconvincing sermon, it has its powerful moments. Willis is often moving as the vet who can't adjust to civilian life. He muses about how much he liked the egrets he saw in Vietnam, but outwardly he lives an only mildly eccentric existence. In private, however, he suffers from terrible psychological flashbacks. Willis makes it hurt when he says, "I'm hanging on with every bit of strength I've got. I'm exhausted."

Joan (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) Allen plays Willis's sister and Lloyd's mother, whose husband of a month was killed in the war; she brings off a tough role as a woman who feels vaguely guilty because she isn't obsessed with Vietnam and a man she knew so little, so long ago.

Judith (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Ivey, as a nurse who has a crush on Willis, suggests longing without spooning it on; John (Full Metal Jacket) Terry, as Willis's impotent war buddy, mixes pride and pathos.

At the center of the film, Lloyd is lively and cute as a girl who graduates from high school and decides she wants to know more about her father. A young Englishwoman, Lloyd conquers the accent problems she showed in Cookie. In this film, you'd never guess she wasn't from Kentucky. You'd never guess anyone would go to England to hire her, either. It's true, of course, that Vivien Leigh, who was magnificent in two of the most American of American films, Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, grew up in Europe. But Lloyd is no Leigh, by either looks or talent. (She's not Kim Novak, either, though a scene in which she tries to seduce Terry into dancing with her recalls Novak's best movie moment, in Picnic.)

Several ensemble scenes are touchingly staged by Jewison and his cast—few movies show this much honest, intimate emotion. But just when the film is casting a spell, a line like "After a while you just quit feeling" pops up, or Jewison will do something that screams symbolism. Or in the case of the egrets that appear from nowhere just as Willis has an epiphany, they squawk symbolism. (R)

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