Neil Young’s Film Lounge – My Own Private Idaho

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO

6/10

USA 1991 : Gus VAN SANT : 104 mins

Freewheeling and mercurial, this engaging compilation of writer-director Van Sants fads and fancies dances along the narrow line between inspiration and affectation. In the chilly Pacific north-west (Portland and Seattle, mainly) two best pals supplement their income via prostitution. Scott (Keanu Reeves), swings both ways as business demands but is basically straight when push comes to shove. Gay Mike (River Phoenix) suffers from narcolepsy as someone notes, not the ideal condition for a hustler. Hes in perpetual search for his long-lost mother, and Scott tags along for a ride which takes them to distant Italy where Mike falls in love with a farmers daughter (Chiara Caselli). Back home in Portland, the death of Mikes father the citys Mayor, no less – sees him cast off his black-sheep mantle, and with it his old friends, including charismatic king-of-the-bums Bob (William Richert)

Its hard to know which aspect of Idaho is the more self-indulgent: the implausible hustlers odyssey mythos (concentrating on Mike) that constitutes the main plot, or the subtext Henry IV rewrite (Scott = Hal, Bob = Falstaff) that surfaces in overlong passages of mock-articulate, cod-Shakespeherian dialogue – with which the younger performers often audibly struggle. Reeves, in particular, justifies his (often unfairly applied) reputation for woodenness – but this isn’t a problem when the spellbindingly oddball Richert (maverick director of 1979s delirious Winter Kills) is around to keep things watchable. Performing a similar movie-saving function (albeit in a radically different key) is the one and only Udo Kier, typecast but terrific value in his all-too-brief appearances as the genial but sexually predatory travelling-salesman Hans: his rendition of the Kraut-rock-space-operatic Mr Klein is a camp knockout of a show-stopper.

The picture does sag a little whenever Richert and Kier are off-screen, but there’s always something going on even if its just rushing clouds. Because, while occasionally capable of striking visuals and moments of hallucinatory, poetic intensity (most famously, a shack landing on an Idaho backroad in one of Mikes many fantasies), Van Sant more often doesn’t just flirt with clich, he drags it home with him: whenever Mike has a narcoleptic seizure (which is repetitively often) we get hackneyed, grainy 8mm-style flashbacks to his infant years with Mom in Idaho. And, while undeniably a talented director (as confirmed by his previous and subsequent films) there are times when he comes across like the gauchest of indie poseurs, such as the arbitrarily tilted camera-angles deployed to film the Portland hustlers. On the plus side, however, he has a great sense of place, ambition to burn, and makes excellent use of sound and music as befits a movie named after a track by the B-52s.

3rd December, 2003
(seen 26th November : CineSide, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young