|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
There are certain films that shouldn’t be reviewed by particular reviewers. Case in point: this reviewer and ‘True Stories,’ director/co-writer David Byrne’s comedy with music. To quote another writer: "For those who like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing they will like." For the rest of us, it is a well-made, acoustically adept but relentlessly self-indulgent exercise in the making of patronizing vignettes.
Chapter 1 actually has one of the best, most intriguing images in the film, with a brilliantly colored road through likewise vivid grass suggesting endless possibilities ahead. The road leads to the mythical, eccentric town of Virgil, Texas, pop. 40,000, where the locals are preparing for a Celebration of Specialness. We meet a wealthy woman (Swoosie Kurtz) too lazy to get out of bed; we see a fashion show featuring weird color-coordinated garments; we hear corporate gospel music. The strongest through-line, so far as it goes, belongs to Louis (John Goodman), a good old boy who will do just about anything to find a wife. Filmmaker Byrne, best known for his work with the band Talking Heads, plays a visitor who observes the goings-on with a perpetual expression of mild interest.
Visually, Byrne has some interesting ideas. Chapter 11 has a wonderful, strange low sky, with a gleam of light between the clouds and the earth and his ability to come up with mildly absurd, striking images would serve a TV commercial quite well. Goodman is also terrific as Louis, putting a lot of nerve and soul into his big song, "People Like Us," in Chapter 27. Most of the film’s onscreen musical numbers are conspicuously lip-synched, including a rendition of Byrne’s "Wild Wild Life" mouthed by a succession of odd-looking folks "performing" on the Virgil stage.
Byrnes and co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley seem to be inviting us to enjoy the tunnel-visioned people they present for both their ridiculousness and their pathos. However, it’s hard for a shallow cartoon to achieve pathos. Because its target is so obvious and so utterly not in need of attack (making fun of small towns trying to relive the ‘50s hasn’t been original for a while now), ‘True Stories’ also seldom rises to the level of genuine absurdity. The big, clean lines Byrnes creates in his shots do constitute a visual style that is sometimes interesting, but there are few things on earth or in film less watchable than humor that falls flat. The sound quality on the songs is excellent. Fans of Byrnes who love his sensibilities may love ‘True Stories.’ Others will likely get much more satisfaction (and much less annoyance) from simply listening to the soundtrack.