Country had a ragged production history, and it shows. Jessica Lange, its star, first got the idea for the film from a photo in a newspaper. She convinced Hal Ashby to direct, and between them they settled on William Whitliff to do the script. Eventually, Ashby dropped out. The script was shopped around to every studio in Hollywood, without success, despite the fact that Jessica Lange had just come off an Oscar for Tootsie and critical acclaim for Frances. Eventually, Disney Studios, looking for more adult products for their Touchstone Film division, picked it up. Whitliff was set to direct, but about ten days into the filming, he was removed. Richard Pearce, best known for low budget, high quality independent films, replaced him.

As if this wasn't enough, Lange's costar is Sam Shepard, one of America's finest playwrights and a good actor, too; and, not coincidentally, Lange's current romantic interest. Well, if the star's boyfriend just happens to be around the set, and he's a major playwright, and the script has problems anyway, what could be more natural than to have him do some rewrites on the spot? Add in complete failure to come up with a good ending and competition from two other movies concerned with country matters, and Country looked like it was in trouble.

It was and is. There are a number of good things about Country, but probably too many weakness for most tastes. The story, set in present day Iowa, concerns a farming family which faces a crisis when the government agency which persuaded them to take out capital improvement loans a few years ago suddenly decides to call the loans due. Since the family has been losing 80 cents on every bushel of corn they grow, this action is rather badly timed, from their point of view. If they can't come up with the money, the government will auction off their farm.

As the family's fortunes go further downhill, the husband turns to drink and the wife to desperate (and dramatically fuzzy) strategies. The story culminates in an auction scene remarkably similar to one done forty years ago in King Vidor's Our Daily Bread. Uncertainty about the real meaning of this scene scuttles the tail end of the picture. The uneasy family reunion is not well counterpointed by the uneasy state of the family's fortunes, so the picture falls flat.

Jessica Lange plays Jewel Ivy, and Sam Shepard Gil Ivy. Lange is good enough, but doesn't give the kind of performance one expects from an actress so passionately interested in a film. Shepard is a crucial piece of miscasting. The husband is basically a weak man, unable to hold up to pressure. Shepard doesn't look like he has a weak bone in his body. It's a little like casting John Wayne as a coward. Shepard, while marvelous in a suitable part, such as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, doesn't have the versatility, the chameleon-like ability to alter his personality, that would allow him to play this kind of part. He can't make us understand why his character falls apart. On the plus side, there is a natural chemistry between Lange and Shepard (well, there should be, under the circumstances). They make a very natural husband and wife in the happier, early portion of the film.

Pearce had one week between the first time he read the screenplay and the first shooting day. Thus, it is unfair to blame him for the failings of Country. He does the kind of job one would expect under the circumstances. There are some good touchs, but overall Pearce doesn't establish his own vision of what the film should be. Pearce is capable of much better, as can be seen from his earlier film, Heartland, which covered similar territory, but much more effectively. The blame for what's wrong with Country really must go to Whittliff, the screenwriter. The story is poorly focussed. There is some good dialog and a few very good scenes, but this is precisely the kind of cobbling that one could expect from Shepard, who set to work too late to remedy basic flaws in the structure. Ultimately, Lange also deserves some of the blame. She produced the film, and was the initiating force and the one who kept it going. I expect more from a labor of love.

Country does have some virtues. Most of the supporting performances are very good. Sets, costumes, etc. are up to the usually high Hollywood standards, and the photography is good. Charles Gross' score, though, is dreadful, trite and given to belaboring the obvious. An early tornado scene is obviously staged in a studio, but it's still impressive.

Country really isn't worth seeing unless you have an interest in the subject. It's not a bad film, but it's not a very good one either. It gets full points for good intentions, but loses most of them for uncertainty about how to carry out those intentions. If Pearce had been in charge from the beginning, especially if the filmmakers had solved the script problems, Country might have been a very fine film.

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