I’ll give him this: Gus Van Sant is a very artistic fellow. He has an amazing eye for cinematography and paints an image on the screen as creatively as he does on a canvas. I’ll even go so far as to say he’s a pretty good director. He certainly proved his chops with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Yet, for all that, a screenwriter he is not. My Own Private Idaho is a perfect example of unique visual and directorial skills struggling, and failing, to compensate for weak writing ability.
The plot takes a backseat to just about everything else in this film but I’ll try and sum it up for you anyway. Mike Waters (River Phoenix) is a gay guy living on the street, prostituting himself to do just about anything for just about anyone. His background is sketchy but he has gone a long time without seeing or knowing his mother, a condition which troubles him greatly. Far more troubling (and dangerous for someone in his line of lifestyle) is his narcolepsy, a condition where stressful or emotional situations induce a deep-sleeplike state that can last minutes or hours.
Mike’s best friend is another street hustler, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). The son of Portland’s very wealthy, very bourgeois mayor, Scott delights in the deep anguish his lifestyle causes his uptight father. He claims to be straight and has plans to become the son his father always wanted him to be when he turns 21. At that age he inherits his fortune and will finally be able to really stick it to daddy dearest. In the meantime his degenerate lifestyle is the only weapon Scott has.
A series of events in Mike’s life drive him to seek out the mother he misses so much. Scott, ever the loyal friend, decides to go along. He has some time to kill before he turns 21 anyway. The two set forth on an adventure that incorporates long Idaho highways, a motorcycle, a roundtrip venture to Italy and a creepy German guy name Hans who makes a living selling “car pieces” when he’s not using them for kinky sex.
Along the way Mike confesses to Scott that he’s in love with him. Too bad for Mike, Scott’s professions of being straight turn out to be true when he meets a lovely Italian girl and takes her home to share his 21st birthday fortune. All of this leaves Mike back on the street, still searching for a mother he never knew.
If any of the above sounds remotely familiar to you Shakespeare fans out there, you’re not totally losing your minds. Van Sant loosely (and I do mean loosely) based his story and his characters on the Bard’s “Henry IV”. Shakespeare adaptations are tricky and even the greats sometimes mess it up (witness Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labours Lost). Van Sant’s attempt comes across as a screen written whimper. While I do applaud his efforts to adapt the famous story to the world he knows and grew up around, I truly regret his decision to make a movie out of it. He should have kept it to himself.
Van Sant’s visual imagery and boldness as a director are very powerful in My Own Private Idaho but powerful and excellent are two totally different things. All of the worthy elements of the film, the acting potential of a very committed cast in particular, are wasted on a storyline that is at best floundering character sketches boiling in a pot of borderline cheap porn. The fleeting moments of excellence are quickly and constantly overshadowed by misguided efforts at being “artistically brilliant”.
My Own Private Idaho is the kind of film that high-brow critics love to praise and fondle with admiration. Don’t ask me why because I’m still trying to figure it out myself. No doubt any of them actually deigning to read an internet movie reviewer’s thoughts are poo-pooing my comments and dismissing me as having a lack of vision. Let me address their concerns in their own language. A stream-of-consciousness script filmed therapy-session style, visionary for no other reasons than it has unique yet traditional cinemagraphy, obtusely ambiguous characters trapped in a wan, lustful plot and includes a frighteningly naked scene of Reeves and Phoenix in a stylized threesome, does not a quality piece of cinema make.
Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix faithfully followed Van Sant into his world and, despite acting their hearts out, suffered at the hands of an incompetent writer. Some years later, the tables would be turned and Van Sant would faithfully follow two different guys with a much better gift for writing, equally interested in acting their hearts out. The film that resulted was Good Will Hunting and in it Van Sant’s talent as a director was finally revealed. Do him, and yourself, a favor. Skip Idaho and go straight to Hunting.
Oh, and if along the way a creepy German guy named Hans tries to sell you “car pieces”, keep walking.
I have to hand it to Criterion on putting together a fairly impressive package. With the exception of the box having a slightly annoying printed-on worn edge look to make it appear as though it had already been on and off your DVD shelf thirty times, it’s an attractive set that has “stylishly collectable” written all over it (figuratively speaking). Too bad the movie inside isn’t equal to its wrappings.
The bonus features reflect a movie connoisseur’s mentality. There is very little there to actually enhance your viewing of the movie. Most of it instead seems designed to help elevate you to a lofty level of thinking so that you can be duped into believing in the movie’s non-existent genius. It’s a fool’s errand, but it still makes for some quasi-interesting background material.
Some of crew the from My Own Private Idaho were cobbled together for a making of featurette filmed especially for the DVD release. You can tell that it’s been more than ten years since they’ve worked on the film but their insights aren’t totally boring or generic. It’s a decent substitute since Idaho was made before it was fashionable to simultaneously produce “making-of” movies alongside the actual film.
Less than exciting is a two-way conversation between Laurie Parker, producer on the film, and Rain Phoenix, River’s younger sister who could easily be Joaquin's twin. The two spend the better part of twenty minutes softly reminiscing about the filming of the movie (Rain was an occasional visitor to the set) and fondly remembering River’s presence and dedication to the movie. R.I.P. River.
In order to help convince you of Idaho’s cinematic brilliance, film scholar (how did he get that title and where do I apply?) Paul Arthur makes big talk about how Van Sant incorporated elements and styles from many other films in order to achieve his masterpiece. No doubt Van Sant himself was stunned by his own genius after watching this little feature entitled Kings of the Road. I was slightly intrigued until Arthur began referring to what he felt were obvious and important homoerotic overtones in Dumb and Dumber at which point I became fascinated with a freckle on my forearm.
The best feature (and the only one I really recommend bothering with if you do feel compelled to watch any of it at all) is the deleted scenes section. The bulk of them center around a rather lengthy cut that includes some of the better adaptation of Shakespeare’s material. Despite failing in other Shakespearean film roles (i.e. Don John in Much Ado), Keanu doesn’t completely suck in these bits while his co-star, Falstaff-ian William Richert is positively brilliant. I guess it was too good so it ended up on the cutting floor.
Sadly, that’s where the visual elements end. The remainder of the bonus materials are audio only, and not very interesting at that. The first is a conversation between Van Sant and interviewer/filmmaker Todd Haynes. They discuss the movie from top to bottom and fill in a lot of the gaps that Van Sant left vacant in his work. It’s a somewhat helpful companion to the film but still very dry. Even worse is a very, very long conversation between Van Sant, writer JT LeRoy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. The entire trialogue is the kind of thing film professors would torture their classes with and adds very little to understanding or appreciating the movie itself.
Oh yeah, there’s a trendy collector’s book too. It makes about as much sense as the film, but still looks cool.
Like a piñata full of razor blades, this Criterion Collection release is pretty packaging full of pain. Makers of good movies could take a note or two on how their DVDs might benefit from such a classy encasement. In the meantime, my recommendation for The Criterion Collection: My Own Private Idaho? Save your money.