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The Straight Story
starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek

. "Schultze Gets the Blues"
[Note: due to the unpredictable ways accents and diacritical marks are rendered in browsers, they do not appear in this review.]

German writer-director Michael Schorr apparently knows a niche genre with financial potential when he sees one. The first hit film that this title is probably patterned on is Jack Nicholson's "About Schmidt," a movie about an aging man's life being turned around by loss. But before we go thinking of Schmidt as the absolute model for Schultze, consider Schmidt's predecessor, Richard Farnsworth's The Straight Story, a 1999 surprise hit that has been sending formulaic clones like this one (and Schmidt!) into theatrical orbit ever since. Fortunately, reappearances aren't regular.

In Straight, Farnsworth made his slow journey on a souped-up tractor along the highways and road stops of America aiming to visit an old buddy once more before he died. Not much of a motivational factor but it's the journey that counts. In Schmidt, Nicholson's travels consist of taking off in his trailer home for a visit with his daughter in another state on the occasion of her wedding.

Hewing to this cosmic formula, the German variation starts with good old Schultze (hefty Horst Krause) and his cronies getting downsized from the salt mine in which they have worked for most of their adult lives, forcing them to take retirement 10 years before expectations. Despite Schultze's lack of planning or preparation for such a life-changing development, his good-natured personality makes him popular in the backwater dullness of his town and he entertains with his accordian playing at the drop of a Seppelhut (Bavarian hat). But, there's a bit of the rebel in this Bavarian teddy bear, which emerges when he discovers Zydeco music from the Creoles of the deep American South, namely Louisiana. Hence, "blues."

The change that his turn of taste produces in his music doesn't meet with much approval by his polka-loving peers at the local music club but the importance he places on his newly adopted style is not lost on his closest friends. His best buddies Jrgen and Manfred (Harald Warmbrunn and Karl Fred Muller) put their money where their appreciation lies and they spearhead a collection to send Schultze as their musical representative to the annual music festival in New Braunfels, Texas, their nowhere town's sister city.

What follows is an East-German's impressions and adventures into an alien but not altogether unfriendly culture where jambalaya and crawfish are the spot-on favorites. The love of beer provides him an instant base of commonality and tavern comradeship. From there it's a short step to fitting in and discovering some true hospitality on the bayou as he pursues the sources of his new musical love.

The American part of the drama, moving with the swiftness of a sleepy crocodile and about as much verbal expression, seems to follow a roughly outlined structure more than a tightly crafted script. It seems like opportunistic filmmaking as the peripatetic German film crew takes advantage of local circumstances much as their hero does. The inescapable improvisational quality of seeing the bayou country through the eyes of a well-intentioned foreigner enriches the storyline until the end, which leads to an outcome that seems a bit haphazard and as difficult to swallow as a Louisiana Clam.

This is slowly appealing stuff that fits the arthouse menu. The similarities to its filmmaking predecessors might be bothersome to anyone who has seen the lot. Those to whom originality is not an overriding issue will find it genial and heartwarming, just as director Schorr intended. But, without the Nicholson presence or the Farnsworth familiarity, (though Krause offers his own brand of understated charm) the film is not likely to achieve the same level of success. Despite my own love of Zydeco, the blues I get from this Teutonic knockoff comes from the worn quality of the refrain.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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