LIST CANDIDATE: MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: River Phoenix, , William Richert

PLOT: A young, narcoleptic gay prostitute searches for his mother, with the help of a slumming fellow hustler who is heir to a fortune.

Still from My Own Private Idaho (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: My Own Private Idaho weaves two weird premises together: the story of a narcoleptic searching for his mother and a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” The movie then adds surreal touches and sets it all inside the world of gay street hustlers.

COMMENTS: Sometimes the line between a “glorious mess” and a plain old-fashioned mess can be very thin, and very personal, indeed. I couldn’t really argue with anyone who sees Idaho as an eccentric gem, but the film has always seemed more like a failed experiment to me. A “Henry IV” adaptation set in the world of street hustlers might have made a good movie (although Idaho suggests that a different approach, with less actual Shakespearean dialogue and no Keanu Reeves, may have been required). Similarly, a bittersweet indie about a narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mom might have made a good movie. But when slapped together, the two storylines don’t really work; Idaho feels like an interesting story that keeps getting interrupted by a high school class’ Shakespeare rehearsal.

River Phoenix, only two years away from his fatal overdose, is beautifully cast as the fragile prostitute who falls into a spontaneous slumber when stressed (and the life of a street hustler does tend to arouse the occasional stressful situation). He’s dreamy, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, isn’t very good—but in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point in his career, the world did not yet know that Reeves was a bad actor, and the same pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms that would earn him well-deserved jeers for his portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Dracula play here as a campy stylistic choice. Since his lean torso and boyish sensuality suit the character physically, his weak-jawed, ersatz Prince Hal somehow fits into the entire subplot’s unreal design. It’s a case of a director turning an actor’s weakness into the film’s strength. William Richert is fine as Bob, the Falstaff substitute. Regular readers will want to keep their eyes open for weirdo favorites (in a rare seductive role) and (in a more substantial and stranger part).

Mild surrealist touches (the hustlers carrying on a conversation from the covers of male jerk mags) jostle with gritty street realities and scenes lifted almost wholesale from “Henry” to form a concoction that is occasionally interesting and touching, but which also feels cobbled together and frustratingly inconclusive. Idaho does, however, unquestionably tilt toward the weird end of the spectrum. The Criterion Collection upgraded this catalog title to Blu-ray in October, 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cracked and beautiful… a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit.“–Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)

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