Cinema Signal:

The Straight Story
starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek

. "The World's Fastest Indian"

The old codger road movie has turned into a genre. David Lynch may have started it in 1999 with "The Straight Story," in which Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight made a slow journey in his late years on a souped-up lawn mower across 300 miles of America as a last act of individuality. With that as a model, the first major studio release on the subject was "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson's movie about an aging man's life being turned around by loss. A european version came along a few years later with "Schultze Gets the Blues" in which Schultze gets downsized and his small Bavarian town finances his trip to a polka convention in Texas.

And, now, comes this biographically based journey featuring an old, home-town mechanic in New Zealand who has been souping up his Indian motorcycle in order to take it to America and break a record. The purposefulness of the journey sets it apart from its predecessors, but the kindly tone of the piece and the journey to parts and people unknown are the generic parallels.

In 1967 Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) is nothing if not dedicated. A resident of Invercargill, New Zealand, his life consists of living off his pension check and building parts for his 1920 Indian Twin Scout, redesigning it for a speed the manufacturers never imagined. His dream is to break the land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for motorbikes. 200 miles an hour will do it.

His early morning pee on the lemon tree in his yard, and his overgrown weedpatch of a lawn doesn't endear him to his Invercargill neighbors, but their aggravation, brought to a shouting point when he starts his engine in the wee hours of the morning, doesn't transfer to the neighbor's boy, George (Iain Rea), who idolizes the old eccentric.

To look at him, you'd never expect this 72-year old candidate for geriatric retirement to be obsessed with moving fast, but he demonstrates considerable attainment when he races a gang of hopped-up Hell's Angels wannabes on the local beach and passes them like a comet in the night. He doesn't win the race due to skidding out around a turn, but he does win the toughie's respect.

When the deadline approaches for trials in Bonneville, Burt takes his meager savings, gets a donation from his lady friend, buys transport on a small freighter at a discount because he agrees to cook for the crew, and makes it to L.A. With the help of Tina (Chris Williams, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story"), the transvestite clerk at a Sunset Strip motel, and Fernando (Paul Rodriguez, "Baadasssss!," "A Cinderella Story"), a car dealer willing to trade for some mechanical know-how, he clears up some shipping problems. After a trailer accident and an overnight interlude with an unexpected homeowner along the highway (Diane Ladd), he finally arrives at the legendary Salt Flats of Bonneville, his "holy ground." But when he finds out about the rules, his problems are only starting.

There is a fairy-tale quality to the accomplishments of the real Burt Munro, who died in 1978 after returning to Bonneville several times, and it's not difficult to understand why Australia-born director Roger Donaldson would be inspired to make a movie out of it. Despite the nagging unbelievability of the journey, however, he and Hopkins have put together a biographical saga of a movie that shows more dedication than accomplishment.

They capture the idiosyncratic nature of their subject but the story is something less than gripping for folks outside motorcycle or racing circles who might be challenged to fully appreciate the accomplishment portrayed. With much mugging, and relentlessly pumped up personality, even Hopkins fans might find the octane level dangerously close to the ozone of gentle amusement.

The film's episodic patchwork blows the tires on the spirit that's supposed to drive it to award consideration.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
i find it incredible that the reviewer recognised that the film was about a New Zealander, but still thought that Roger Donaldson was an Australian!
                                                           ~~ Sara G. 
[Ed. note: Hmmm... maybe it's 'cause he was born in Ballarat, Australia?]

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