Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Movie about Robert E. Howard - review of The Whole Wide World

I recently ran across a gem of a movie called The Whole Wide World. Directed by Dan Ireland, the 1996 film attracted my attention because the famous writer Robert E. Howard was a central character in the story. Most famous for creating Conan, Howard is a writer who inspired my love of the fantasy genre. His work has a worldwide following despite his less-than-literary pedigree of being a pulp writer in the 1930s. His tragic 1936 suicide I think has simply added to his fame. His readers can easily see into his beauteous and epic imagination, and they surely suspect that this world was not grandiose enough for him.

The movie, interestingly, is presented from the view of Novalyne Price, played by Renee Zellweger, who always seems to be both compelling and adorable in all her roles. Set in 1930s Texas, Novalyne is among the new breed of young professional college educated women. She works as a school teacher and takes her career seriously, but she also has ambitions to be a writer. She is keenly interested to meet Robert E. Howard, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, because he is a published full-time writer. She is so bold as to call Robert's house, but his sick mother never gives him the messages and Robert is always too engrossed in his creative work to notice a ringing phone. Eventually, Novalyne takes the extraordinary step of going over to his house. Her female colleagues are utterly disapproving of Novalyne's shamelessness, but it is easy to see that they are jealous of her for doing what she wants.

An awkward and rocky relationship ensues, but the writing genius of Robert keeps Novalyne interested. The story proceeds to give insights into Robert's creative core. He is shown as deeply immersed in the stories, or yarns as he calls them. He whacks at hapless corn stalks with an old sword or jogs through town performing an imaginary boxing match. In addition to his odd behavior, his sexually charged and violent stories easily earn him the label of town weirdo.

At a supper in which Novalyne introduces Robert to her mother and grandmother, and they talk about writing, Novalyne declares that maybe she can be both a writer and a teacher. Without missing a beat, Robert in all seriousness says, "It doesn't work that way."

This is an evenly paced yet quiet movie. It is a story with dialogue upon which you hang on every word. Emotions are vivid, and the division of Robert's affections between his ailing mother and Novalyne reveals yet another layer of his tortured existence. Despite his love for Novalyne, his heart cannot yield the commitment he has made to his writing craft. He knows to produce his best work, he must give of himself fully. The increasing amount of care that his mother requires begins to interfere with his writing, which adds to his rising despair.

Without revealing any more twists and turns from this riveting drama, I'll conclude and only add that it has a beautiful tear-jerker ending. If it was possible to create a chick flick about the man behind some of fantasy fiction's most swaggering and womanizing heroes, then this is it.