Walking Across Egypt

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Allan Seidelman

REVIEWED: 04-10-00

It's hard to convince an audience of the modest, skillful virtues of a movie like Walking Across Egypt without overselling it or damning it with faint praise. But this seriocomic adaptation of a Clyde Edgerton novel, a longtime dream project for former Nashville producer Madeline Bell, is the kind of genial, innocuous tale audiences regularly berate Hollywood for not making. The best thing you can say for Walking Across Egypt is that it's much more enjoyable than that description implies.

The movie's chief grace is a delightful performance by Ellen Burstyn as Mattie Rigsbee, a churchgoing lady in a Deep Southern town whose grown children--a stodgy son (Judge Reinhold) and cold daughter (Gail O'Grady)--have left her lacking for companionship. That need is filled when she makes the acquaintance of the town's seedy dogcatcher, played by an unrecognizable Mark Hamill in a scroungy and unexpectedly funny character turn. Through him she makes the acquaintance of his orphaned nephew Wesley (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), a foul-mouthed delinquent doing time for car theft. In the unloved teen, Mattie sees the chance to practice her Christian ideals of helping "the lesser of these thy brethren." In Mattie, Wesley sees access to a bathtub, pound cake, and spending cash before he takes it on the lam.

Walking Across Egypt is most likable when Mattie's prickly, crusading idealism butts heads with Wesley's unrepentant hell-raising streak: I'm glad Wesley holds out as long as he does and sorry he couldn't hold out longer. (The casting of bright-eyed, shiny-toothed Taylor Thomas as Wesley makes redemption a foregone conclusion.) The movie has the glossy look and conventional uplift of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation--which makes sense, given that director Arthur Allan Seidelman is a four-time Emmy winner--and those limitations are evident in some of the obvious supporting performances and the pat resolution. At worst, the movie dabbles in the toothless TV-movie eccentricity that passes for character and incident in most recent movies about the South.

What you respond to, though, are the ornery quirks and rough edges in Edgerton's material, as adapted by screenwriter Paul Tamasy. Edgerton is a shrewd observer of Southern mores, down to the rueful affection all buttoned-down belles have for rough diamonds, and his details of small-town Baptist life are as precise as the status attached to chairing the Lottie Moon offering drive. The movie's funniest episodes--a collapsing rocking chair, a rotten ladder, a mishap involving a handgun and bubble bath--have the lackadaisical, unwarranted urgency of a tale told over a neighbor's fence when there's nothing else going on.

Granted, I'm probably inclined to cut the movie some slack because it reminds me so much of growing up in Murfreesboro. But by the same token, considering how regularly Hollywood screws up the details of small-town life (e.g., The Runaway Bride), it's amazing to find some stray observation or character detail that reminds you of real life at all. Walking Across Egypt plays through Thursday night at Green Hills Commons 16.

--Jim Ridley

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