Film review: Mr. North

Published: Thursday, Jan. 5 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

With "Mr. North," Danny Huston, son of the late John Huston, has gathered a magnificent cast for a humorous and charming adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "Theophilus North."

And though this first directing effort doesn't show the firm hand of his father (remember that John Huston's first film was the classic "Maltese Falcon"), young Huston has nonetheless managed a nice feel for light comedy and pulls some wonderful performances from most of his cast.

Anthony Edwards, best known as Tom Cruise's sidekick "Goose" in "Top Gun" and Robert Carradine's buddy in "Revenge of the Nerds," has the title role as a well-educated young man who has abandoned higher learning institutions to see what adventures he can encounter in real life.

The time is 1926 and North's travels take him to the small, exclusive hamlet of Newport, Rhode Island. Living in the YMCA, North takes on teaching and reading posts as a tutor, mainly to children of the wealthy families in the area. (He also washes dishes as a local eatery to make ends meet.)

He befriends a pseudo-British valet (Harry Dean Stanton), a woman (Lauren Bacall) who runs a boarding house just for local servants and an Irish maid (Virginia Madsen) at a house where he takes a job.

The latter employment is to read to a wealthy patriarch (Robert Mitchum) who has been house-bound for eight years. Soon, North not only becomes friendly with him but helps him get out and about again, much to the chagrin of his money-grubbing daughter (Tammy Grimes) who would rather the old man just die and leave her an inheritance.

North also inadvertently rids a young girl (Mary Stuart Masterson) of migraine headaches, with the help of static electricity, which builds in his body at an amazing level, and which is misinterpreted by local children to be magic. Soon he gains a reputation as a healer, which gets him in trouble with the local doctor (David Warner).

The film has no real central plot. It is more an observation of North's encounters with Newport's locals in an episodic, sometimes disjointed and meandering film, which could use some focus.

"Mr. North" especially loses its way toward the end with a courtroom scene that is played far too broadly, and a couple of over-the-top performances, especially Mark Metcalf as Masterson's overwrought father.

But there's no denying that the film also offers some enormous pleasures, including a wonderful period recreation, gorgeous cinematography, witty dialogue and especially the performances by Mitchum, who seems more lively than he has in anything he's done in years; Bacall, who is obviously enjoying her role as a strict matriarchal figure; Stanton, whose relish as the phony Briton is infectious; Madsen, lovely and charming as the innocent maid; and Masterson, winsome as the young girl who unwittingly acts as a catalyst to North's complications with the local folk.

Also good is Anjelica Huston, who doesn't have much to do, but whose presence is felt throughout, and, of course, Edwards, whose own charm and pluck carry the film even when it threatens to teeter out of control.

Danny Huston, whose father acted as executive producer and co-screenwriter before his death during the film's production, still has some things to learn, but "Mr. North," rated PG for a couple of profanities, is an impressive directing debut — and well worth seeing during its limited one-week run.