Film review: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Published: Tuesday, May 24 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

Trying to film an allegorical novel like Tom Robbins' "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is probably an impossible task, but screenwriter/director/co-editor Gus Van Sant Jr. ("My Own Private Idaho," "Drugstore Cowboy") may have been his own worst enemy in this effort.

Readied for release last fall, Van Sant asked that the film be pulled from the schedule so he could do some extensive edit-room surgery. It was, he did — and it didn't help.

Muddled, confused, ridiculously vulgar, with jokes that fall flat and performances that range from uneven to downright embarrassing, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is a movie that wants to say something profound but instead just blathers.

Robbins himself offers a modest voice-over narration, reading prose from his '70s book, while Uma Thurman stars as his heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, a former feminine hygiene model with oversize thumbs, who believes hitchhiking is her destiny. In fact, she explains at one point that if she goes even a day without hitching a ride, her huge thumbs begin to ache.

A variety of adventures in Sissy's life are chronicled, with all kinds of campy cameos from the likes of Roseanne Arnold, Buck Henry, Sean Young, Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves, until Sissy heads for an Oregon dude ranch/health spa — the Rubber Rose Ranch — owned by her friend "The Countess" (John Hurt) and operated by the flamboyant Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson).

Once there, Sissy meets a group of lesbian feminists called "The Cowgirls," including a bullwhip-cracking visionary named Delores Del Ruby (Lorraine Bracco). Once there, Sissy immediately falls in love with their leader, Bonanza Jellybean (Rain Phoenix, sister of the late River Phoenix), who isplotting to take over the ranch.

Ultimately, the women do just that, driving out Hurt, Dickinson and most of the paying patrons, and then become whooping crane rustlers, holding the rare migratory birds hostage.

Oh, yes, there's also a mountain-man prophet called "The Chink" (Pat Morita), who has a relationship with both Bonanza and Sissy.

If all of this sounds weird, it plays even weirder.

Thurman's sleepy-eyed central performance, complete with bad Southern accent, is a misfire, but everyone else is just as bad — over the top, underdeveloped or, as in the case of Phoenix, amateurish.

By all accounts this is a very different film from the one shown at last year's Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival. Which just goes to show that all the tinkering in the world won't make a bit of difference if the quality isn't there to begin with.

Only Canadian country singer k.d. lang comes out unscathed, and she's not on camera. Her soundtrack music is very good in a film unworthy of her talent.

"Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is rated R for considerable profanity, vulgarity, sex, nudity, violence and drugs.