GRASS HARP, THE

               

From the Nov. 1, 1996, Deseret News

THE GRASS HARP — Piper Laurie, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Mary Steenburgen, Edward Furlong, Roddy McDowall, Nell Carter, Charles Durning, Sean Patrick Flannery, Joe Don Baker; rated PG (violence, profanity, vulgarity)

After 20 years, "Carrie" is finally getting revenge on her mother.

Remember young Sissy Spacek as the repressed title character in the 1976 Stephen King film, and Piper Laurie as her wacko mother? In "The Grass Harp," the roles are reversed as Laurie plays a gentle soul who has lived a lifetime of repression under the thumb of her shrewish sister, played by none other than Spacek.

Overweight Laurie is a flibbertigibbet who virtually lives in her kitchen, spending most of her time with sassy Nell Carter, whipping up sugar-loaded confections. The rest of their time is spent gathering "ingredients" from local wild fields for her "secret dropsy potion," a natural medicine that sells well in the region.

But the house — and half the town — is actually owned by her stern, unbending sister, skinny-as-a-reed Spacek, who spends a good deal of her time browbeating Laurie.

When their younger cousin dies unexpectedly, prompting her husband to commit suicide, the ill-fated couple's orphaned son (played as a 16-year-old by Edward Furlong, of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day") comes to live with the sisters. At first Laurie isn't sure a boy should be raised by a houseful of women, but it isn't long before Laurie and Furlong develop a strong bond.

As the story progresses — told from Furlong's point of view — there are vignettes about Spacek being unexpectedly duped by a smooth-talking con man (Jack Lemmon), while Laurie is surprised to be courted by a gentlemanly retired judge (Walter Matthau), whose wife died a couple of years earlier. (The romance between Laurie and Matthau is especially charming.)

            

          Piper Laurie and Walter Matthau share a tender moment in 'The Grass Harp'

The nominal central plot has Laurie finally breaking free of her sister's psychological hold as she blossoms for the first time.

Meanwhile, Roddy McDowall is hilarious as a talkative barber who knows everything about everybody else's comings and goings. Mary Steenburgen brings her own brand of eccentric energy to the film when she shows up as an evangelist with a passel of kids. And both Charles Durning, as the local preacher, and Joe Don Baker, as the town sheriff, have amusing bits of business.

Co-producer/director Charles Matthau (Walter's son) has done a nice job of pulling all of this together as a sweet, nice-and-easy, PBS-style nostalgia piece (it's set in the '40s), and the script is nicely shaded, written by veteran Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis, and based on a Truman Capote story.

But there's no question that casting has a lot to do with the success of "The Grass Harp." And while it's a treat to see all of these veteran actors come together, it's a genuine pleasure to report that each is given much to chew on. These are all wonderfully written characters. In fact, so many movies today lack supporting characters of any dimension that it's a temptation to go overboard since there are so many here.        

As terrific as she is, it's no real surprise to see Laurie playing a softhearted spinster who finally strikes out on her own. The real surprise comes in seeing Spacek as a tight-lipped, unhappy woman who cruelly dominates her loved ones. She is also terrific — as are Matthau, Lemmon, McDowall, et. al.

"The Grass Harp" has its flaws, and the sentimentality is laid on a bit thick, and it would be nice if Furlong were just a bit less surly in what is essentially the lead role. (To see him blown away by Laurie and Matthau and Spacek is a little sad.)

But the film has enough going for it that audiences should feel properly entertained, and perhaps even touched by its heartfelt intentions.

And that acting ensemble . . . it's a rare and delightful sight by modern standards.

"The Grass Harp" is rated PG for some violence, a few mild cuss words and a couple of mildly vulgar gags.