The Curse of the Starving Class
directed by J. Michael McClary
(Trimark, 1994)

Exactly what "the curse of the starving class" is, you may never know, even after a careful examination of the aptly titled non-action film, which is based on a Sam Shepard play. (Need we say more?)

It seems to have something to do, however, with an empty refrigerator, around which dwells a dysfunctional family that owns a dysfunctional farm just off the Nevada desert.

The chief dysfunctionary of this dysfunctional family is Weston Tate (James Woods), a former Vietnam War bomber pilot who is now at war mostly with himself. The debt-ridden Tate, who's nearly bought the farm on several occasions, now dreams of selling the farm and moving to Mexico, which seems a good idea, since the Hell's Angels collection agency has plans to bury him out on the lone prairie.

And in the opposite corner is his equally dysfunctional wife, Ella Tate (Kathy Bates), who also dreams of selling the farm. But Ella dreams of moving to Paris with the proceeds, which she hopes to get from amorous attorney Taylor (Randy Quaid), a local "reel estate" developer whose license plate reads CSHFLO. (Need we say more?) Caught between them are their genetically dysfunctional offspring, Emma (Kristin Fiorella) and Wesley (Henry Thomas).

Emma, who has only recently crossed the threshold of womanhood, spends most of her time running away from home, which ostensibly makes her the sanest member of the family, at least until she rides her horse through the window of the local saloon and shoots it up with a semi-automatic.

Wesley, who's older if not wiser, seems to have his heart in the right place, though his brain is often out to lunch. His dream is to make something of the farm, a Herculean task under the best of circumstances, which these are not.

Given each character's private agenda, it's not long before sparks fly. Almost every meeting of family members starts or ends with a fight -- sometimes both -- until the moment of Weston's sudden, dramatic and exquisitely illogical rain-soaked transformation from alcohol-fueled parasite to born-again lover of life and defender of the work ethic.

Unfortunately for Weston and the rest of the starving class, his transformation comes too late. Despite his best intentions, Weston can't shed his old life just by shedding his old ways. Those he owes money still want the money; those who want him dead are still out looking for him.

I can't say it's a joy to watch The Curse of the Starving Class, despite moments of razor-sharp hilarity. At times you just want to step into the film and slap one or two characters in hopes of knocking some sense into them. And no way is it a film for people who like tidy solutions, or any solutions at all.

But as extension of Sam Shepard's dark vision of the American family and the individual psyche, Starving Class rings true, loud and clear. It's articulate, original and thought-provoking. And it's superbly acted, especially by Woods, who's probably Hollywood's most underrated on-screen psycho.

In short, for those of us who've had enough of Stallone and Van Damme, this Curse is a blessed event.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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