All right, raise your hands if you have been thinking that the old Tony Orlando and Dawn tune “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” needed to be made into a mawkish feature film starring William Hurt. Hmmm, I don’t see many hands up, and I don’t think that is entirely due to my complete lack of a webcam with which to spy on you all.
Well, it was made, and I’ll spare you the suspense: Tony Orlando isn’t in it. “The Yellow Handkerchief,” which screened at the 45th Annual Chicago International Film Festival, was actually based on the same Pete Hamill story that inspired both Orlando and the 1977 Japanese film “Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi.” It is a layered film with a lot of good elements in it, but it is ultimately sunk by an onslaught of unbearable cliches.
Brett (Hurt) has just been released from the joint. In a small Louisiana town, he meets two troubled teenagers (Eddie Redmayne as Gordy, and Kristen Stewart as Martine). Martine is a typical trashy-sexy teenage bayou girl. She parades around in ballet slippers, unaware that she is never, ever, going to have any sort of a career in the arts. We get the feeling the largest town she’ll ever visit might be Baton Rouge. Gordy is a complete outcast: he is on the road in his convertible, having been virtually banished from his Oklahoma home. He is clumsy, annoying, and weird. Actually, he reminds one a little bit of Jar Jar Binks. He buys disposable cameras with expired film, crushes them, and then takes pictures (which we are to believe are great works of art). He calls his scrapbook (a la Peter Beard) a “science project” and a “study in abnormality,” but no one in his world is interested in studying Gordy, except for Gordy himself.
Redmayne’s portrayal of Gordy works in a manic awkwardness and a full-on nerdiness, but he always stops just short of taking the character over the top. Gordy is truly an annoying individual, but his personality is clearly the result of a difficult upbringing. Redmayne manages to convey the pain hiding underneath the twitchy exterior. Stewart, for her part, filmed this flick just before getting involved in the “Twilight” series. This may be the last time we are able to see her on film as a simple small-town teen: cosmopolitan adult roles ought to be on her slate when her current run of vampire films winds down. Hurt plays the sensitive thoughtful guy, as always, which is why I had trouble buying him as an occasionally violent oil rig worker and a jailbird.
When the characters first meet, Martine is completely repulsed by Gordy. However, both are desperate for someone to care about them. The two kids and Brett have an unspoken bond: none of them has anyone else in the world who really needs them. Neglected and alone, they go on the road. Their adventure, lushly filmed by Chris Menges, involves occasional hiccups (a broken car, a speeding ticket, a deer struck on the road), and it is during each of these delays that Brett’s backstory emerges. It turns out that most of his crimes were pretty minor (even the manslaughter rap wasn’t really his fault), and that he is pining away for a woman named May (Maria Bello) a bit downstate. The story of Brett and May is by the numbers and free of suspense. Naturally, it is May who may (or may not) be inspired to tie those yellow ribbons ’round the old oak tree (or, the mast of a boat in this case). There are difficultes with the storytelling, though. For example, when the speeding ticket lands Brett in the local jail, a deus ex machina frees him with little explanation.
As the travelogue continues, the loneliness is underlined: an abandoned church, an abandoned gas station. No people. The kids fall for each other, and under most other circumstances, it would seem rather forced. But Stewart and Redmayne (under the direction of Udayan Prasad) make the uber-dork / hot chick romance work. It happens slowly, hesitantly, in careful stages, and I bought into it. Each of the characters is alone, and the Gordy/Martine story arc is about knowing what it is to be wanted, and appreciating what you have when you have it. Helping Brett gives the kids purpose, and draws them together. Brett witnesses the blossoming teen love, and it convinces him to risk a visit to May’s place. Yellow textiles happen.
The story remains troublesome: Brett, admittedly no genius, could have beaten the rap for his accidental manslaughter. He went to jail by choice, presumably out of a sense of guilt (this is unclear). May, for her part, doesn’t blame him, doesn’t want him to leave her, and even visits him in jail. But still, this dullard thinks she doesn’t want to see him when he gets out (hence the whole 1970s pop riff). It’s all a bit forced, actually. With the story of May and Brett brought to such a tired ending, one wonders if the story might have been more interesting if there was a bit more backstory on Gordy and Martine. The kids’ characters and their arc are more interesting and are more believable than that of the adults.
What we then have here is a film filled with stock characters, but also with a few fantastic performances. There is some amazing footage of the most rural parts of Louisiana, but do we need another “misfits bonding on the road” movie? Plot holes, unconvincing character motivation, and those damned yellow hankies – the most sickly-sweet and unimaginative plot device seen on film in ages – send a rather promising and atmospheric drama down the bayou. Sonofagun.