30 December 2004

Boobs and Poop: The Road to Wellville

There are some things a person shouldn't admit in public, and a fondness for the movie The Road to Wellville is probably one of them. But these have been sad, depressing days out in the Real World, and so I can't resist spending at least a few (perhaps ill-considered) words on a movie I should not admit having seen numerous times of my own free will.

The Road to Wellville is based on T.C. Boyle's amusing novel of the same name (a book that is rather different from the film in tone and temperament). The story is historical, and surprisingly accurate -- after seeing the movie and reading the novel, I did some research (I think I got Gerald Carson's Cornflake Crusade from the library) and was amazed to see that Boyle and then Alan Parker, the director of the film, had only slightly exaggerated the story of John Harvey Kellogg.

In the movie, Kellogg is played by Anthony Hopkins. It is my favorite role of his, which is probably something else I shouldn't admit in public. But Hopkins gives it such a great shot, working around a horrendously silly set of buck teeth and an accent that is different from one scene to the next, that I can't help laughing every time he appears. And he gets some of the best dialogue:
Interviewer: Sir, how often should one evacuate one's bowels?

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: One should never, ever, interrupt one's desire to defecate. I have inquired at the Bronx and London Zoos as to the daily bowel evacuations of primates. It is not once, twice, or three times, sir, but four. At the end of an average day, their cages are filled with a veritable mountain of natural health.

Interviewer: And, sex?

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: Sex is the sewer drain of a healthy body, sir! Any use of the sexual act other than procreation is a waste of vital energy! Wasted seeds are wasted lives!
A viewer who rented the movie through Netflix said of it: "This movie is all about boobs and poop." Indeed, it is -- obsessively so. But some of the actors get marvelous roles -- Michael Lerner and John Neville are my two favorites after Hopkins, although many of the small roles are also quite fun -- that make up for Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda, who are good sports about it all, but seem rather at a loss of what to do, as if they'd thought they signed up for a serious movie involving method acting rather than one where the characters are cartoons. The sets are marvelous, too, and there are plenty of visual puns as one scene cuts to the next.

The DVD is overpriced for what it is -- the movie (not letterboxed) and nothing more, other than subtitles in English for a film that's in English -- which makes me hope that some day, perhaps, Criterion will do something with it. I'm almost serious about that, because it's a movie that works very well as a DVD because you can skip over the occasional dull moments, and it would certainly be interesting to hear from the actors and crew about their experiences making the film. Throw in a documentary on Dr. Kellogg, and it would be a great package!

I could say that the film is about finding responsibility in liberation, that it seeks to show that grand ideals are good cover for selfish schemes and wild delusions -- but I know in my heart that though there is a certain amount of truth to all that, the Netflix viewer is right: It's a movie about boobs and poop. And if you don't like a wide variety of jokes about boobs and poop, there's no way you would ever find the movie to have any redeeming value. In fact, no matter what you think of boobs and poop, there's probably something seriously wrong with you if you do find redeeming value in the film. There's nothing redeeming about it. It's just ridiculous fun.

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