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Country Goes to the Movies, part X: Falling From Grace

By Robert Loy, March 1998

In his first and so far (cross your fingers!) only starring role in a major motion picture, John Mellencamp tries to emulate James Dean and Marlon Brando. He wants to be perceived as a brooding loner, a misunderstood rebel. But he comes across more like a mumbling moron.

In "Falling From Grace" based on one of Larry ("Lonesome Dove") McMurtry's few stinkers, Mellencamp plays Bud Parks, a young man from Doak City, Ind. Doak City (Doak should probably be spelled with an R instead of an A as you'll soon see) is the kind of place where they still play Hank Senior on the radio, and the big thing for the kids to do on a Saturday night is drink whiskey, shoot pistols and strap themselves into a coffin-sized metal box that their drunken friends will then hurl from a speeding pick-up truck. It's probably supposed to be a metaphor for the constraints of small-town life - either that or it's a way to impress those chicks who are really into roadburn.

Bud is supposed to be a big country singer, friend of Waylon and Willie, but we never see him play an instrument or sing (except for a few off-key a cappella lines from what is arguably Buck Owens's worst song "I Got the Hungries For Your Love (And I'm Waitin' in Your Welfare Line").

We know he's a country singer though because he wears a cowboy hat and has sideburns down to his clavicle. He's back in Doak City along with wife Mariel Hemingway (he looks extremely embarrassed about being in this turkey) for his grandfather's 80th birthday.

Grandpa sits on the porch in his sweaty old underwear and a moth-eaten old hat, flies buzzing around his head. He thinks he is a ladies man and started a rumor about his bad back to keep the women off him.

He is - no kidding - the cream of Doak City society.

Bud also has a narcoleptic brother-in-law, an illegitimate half-brother with a chip on his shoulder and a crush on wife Mariel, an obnoxious brother who is married to Bud's high school flame PJ (Kay Lenz), who is also having an affair with Bud's father, her father-in-law (Claude Akins).

Like sands through the hourglass...

Daddy Claude also tries to put the moves on Mariel while Mellencamp is out moping around on his motorcycle, but she knows even soap operas can get too convoluted and smacks him in the jaw with a cast iron frying pan.

Bud is only scheduled to be in Doak City for three days, but he loves dysfunctionality so much he's still there weeks later. He's even ready to give up the music business.

Wife Mariel wisely packs up the bags and their daughter and heads home to California. Bud doesn't care because by now he's joined in the family tradition and is sleeping with PJ. No explanation is given as to why he would rather stand in line for some small-town Harlot when he's got Mariel Hemingway at home - not to mention tons of groupies. No explanation is given as to why in the heck he - or anybody - would want to stay in Doak City one second longer than they had to. None of it rings true.

(Which is not to say that the movie doesn't have moments of honesty. When PJ asks Bud at the country club if he wants to go for a walk, Bud says, "Might as well; I can't dance." And anybody who's seen the video to "Little Pink Houses" knows just how true that is.)

Claude and Bud get into a fistfight which Dad wins handily. Now he's got a black eye, and his wife and child are gone, his videos have dropped out of heavy rotation on CMT, Willie Nelson won't return his calls, and the bank is coming to repossess the bus. What does Bud - Mr. Clear Thinking - Parks decide to do about all this?

If you said get rip-roaring drunk and have two other morons strap him into a metal box and throw him off the back of a pickup doing 80 mph, you're weird enough that maybe you should be living in Doak City.

After a hundred and some-odd minutes of this mishmash of a movie, you're more than ready for somebody to throw Mellencamp out of a speeding vehicle.

That's why it's so frustrating that this scene drags on forever, whole minutes where all you see is a dim outline of Mellencamp in the box. And all you hear is his highly-amplified heartbeat - that and the snores of anybody watching this video with you who is not being paid to review it.

The good thing about cruising in a metal box is that for a while it's cool, sparks flying everywhere; but the bad thing is you've got no steering wheel. Bud's box runs off the road, hits a sign and shoots into a deep ditch, and he wakes up in the hospital. Not the mental hospital where he belongs, a regular hospital.

Wife Mariel comes to see him, probably to make sure the fool's insurance premiums are all paid up. She gives him an impassioned speech and tells him he has to decide what he wants, and you can just tell that this knucklehead is thinking: "What I want is to put some Jim Beam in that IV and then get a couple of guys to strap me down in this hospital bed and throw me down the elevator shaft."

There should be no shortage of volunteers.