My Own Private Idaho (1991) (R)

In my review of "Brokeback Mountain" I called it the "juggernaut of modern cinema" which i still consider to be the truth. But while the film is generally considered to be one of Oscar's biggest loses and the fans fight tooth and nail over it, skeptics of the film site another movie that brought around homosexuality long before Ang Lee did: Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho".
Now if we're going to be picky here, "Philadelphia" should be mentioned as well, simply for existing around the same time period of "My Own Private Idaho"; yet Jonathan Demme's film lacks the chutzpah of both Van Sant's and Lee's.
Compared with its cowboy successor, "My Own Private Idaho" appears more like a surrealist work. Van Sant's style (as I've said before) is very chameleon-like, so here it blends into something in between "Paris, Texas" and "Easy Rider".
The movie begins with narcoleptic street walker Mike Waters (River Phoenix) standing in the middle of the road in Idaho. He ponders about how roads look like faces and then he passes out, falling into another one of his episodes.
Later on in the movie, he makes it to Seattle where he and fellow escort Scott (Keanu Reaves) are living off of the land so to speak. It might make the casual viewer wince, and certainly in the early 90s, this was not a time when gay prostitution was something being addressed in movies...another reason why Gus Van Sant's movie didn't do as well as Ang Lee's, the audience wasn't ready for it.
As hard as "Brokeback Mountain" is to watch, it is never as mentally challenging as "My Own Private Idaho" which ranges from simple drama to complex piece of surrealism. There are so many styles going on here and so many different techniques are used for each one that sometimes it feels like you're drowning in images and sounds...but surprisingly it works.
Scott and Mike are subject to the street lord, a Dickens-like character named Bob (William Richert). Bob has his own ideas of grandeur and the interactions between him and Scott remind us of nothing but Shakespeare. As quickly as the movie's filming can switch up, so can the script.
Drawing inspiration from "Cabaret", Andy Warhol, and the underground movement, Gus Van Sant manages to smooth out all of the uncomfortable corners on the previous genres and make his own.
This is where I pause and rant.
There is an unfortunate blight on the cinematic world known as Keanu Reaves. The man just isn't a good actor, he can't do it, and anyone who told him that he could should have kept their mouth shut. There's a difference between simply phoning it in and not being able to perform in the first place, sadly, Reaves falls into the latter. This wouldn't be such a big deal if he wasn't opposite River Phoenix in the movie, who is sensationally empathetic. Phoenix's performance is stunning and Reaves' is satisfactory.
Okay, done ranting.
As Mike and Scott travel around town, getting picked up by strangers and having sex in hotel rooms, we keep getting flashbacks of Mike's youth, images of his mother. He becomes determined to try to find her, somehow or another.
"My Own Private Idaho" is, when you look at it, plot-less. Two boys wander around, trying to find love and success. Yet when you look at it again, it's nothing if not a character piece. But this wouldn't strike you the first time because the film is very, very flashy.
It jumps and skips around, but in the end, nothing really happens besides character development. Van Sant is so tricky in this way, he lures his viewer in with flashes and bangs and then devastates us with his emotion.
The heart of the movie belongs to Mike.
Still, it's a cheery film with a positive message and it would have been more potent if it wasn't. "My Own Private Idaho" is about going through the trials of life, mainly heart break and at that it is nothing if not entertaining and original.

Score: ★★★½

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