Movie Review: Bonneville (2006)

Small movie showcasing realistic Golden Girl roles

BonnevilleCarol: I can’t leave Arlo alone that long!
Margene: Well how would you know?
You haven’t left his side since highschool.
Carol: I have so!
Margene: Trips to the ladies’ room don’t count.

Written by Daniel D. Davis
Directed by Christopher N. Rowley

Jessica Lange … Arvilla
Kathy Bates … Margene
Joan Allen … Carol
Tom Skerritt … Emmett
Christine Baranski … Francine
Victor Rasuk … Bo Douglas

Charming, real buddy movie for 50-something women…

This small independent film didn’t receive much attention and, for all I know, didn’t even get released for the theater. [I haven’t figured out how to read the IMDb pages to determine key production, distribution, and release information.] But that’s fine, who cares? For many of these smaller-budget movies it seems sacrilegious to display them at the local franchise of MegaCineBoomBoxInYourFace: they are appropriately viewed in intimate settings in one’s home, now made even more special by big screen and/or HD TVs.

And for such a quiet, understated movie, how could you obtain a more perfect coalescence of performing art: with Jessica Lange (Arvilla), Kathy Bates (Margene), and Joan Allen (Carol). The number of Oscar nominations among them is 11, with three wins—two for Lange in Blue Sky (1995, leading) and Tootsie (1983, supporting) and one for Bates in Misery (1991, leading). Regardless of the many awards and kudos, none of them in Bonneville seems to stand in front of the other… they weave their characters harmoniously like a once-in-a-lifetime piano sonata composed by your high-school music teacher.

Arvilla gets the sad news that her world-traveling, accomplished scholar-husband has died in Borneo. His ashes are sent back to their rustically rich home in Pocatello, Idaho, where his daughter (Arvilla’s stepdaughter) Francine (Christine Baranski) arrives to present an ultimatum: “My father wills me everything, including your house. Either you send me his ashes, or let me take them back with me to Santa Barbara, or I’m selling the house out from under you.” Then Francine leaves Idaho. Arvilla (Lange) calls her sister Margene (Bates) and their friend Carol (Allen) to commiserate and make plans.

In the course of the three women walking around the sentimental grounds, they wander into the garage, where husband (Bill?) has left a beautiful, restored, red Pontiac Bonneville, ca. 1965. So what are we to do? Duh! Probably at the instigation of Margene—she’s definitely the leadership material of the outfit—the three women, instead of flying with Bill’s ashes to the ceremony in Santa Barbara, decide to jump in the Bonnie and “Route 66” the 1000 miles or so to Southern California.

In the course of the journey, a couple of guys materialize: first, young 20-something Bo (Victor Rasuk); second, more contemporary Emmett (Tom Skerritt[1]), who drives an umpty-ump-wheeler big ol’ truck and flirts with the three of them in their open-air convertible riding the mountain roads. Emmett hangs around and oddly enough latches onto Margene. “What, Kathy Bates, the hopelessly overchubby one?! Get real.” But of the three unique personalities, Margene is definitely the one most men are going to go for….

So what’s so special?

Well, nothing. And that seems to be the point of the movie. The three of them make the ordinary appealing; it’s like one day you wake up and look around in your back yard and notice the beauty of nature. In the course of the road trip, we get to see what makes each fascinating woman tick:

Arvilla, going through her grief, has to make the key decision: will she scatter the ashes as her husband had supposedly directed, or will she succumb to economic reality and deliver the ashes to her less-than-adorable step-daughter in order to keep the house? Although she’s a sweet, articulate, and idealistic girl, one has the impression Arvilla is still a 25 year-old in a 50-year-old body. She doesn’t really have a lot going for her professionally, so if Francine takes the house, Arvilla will probably have to move in with her sister, Margene (who was widowed a few years ago, herself).

Speaking of which, Margene, with her effervescent joie de vivre, pretty much carries the film. Or I should say, of the three women, Margene keeps a positive mental attitude when the spirits of the others flag. She’s still quite the man-lover and the instigator of any ribald repartee. Slightly sacrilegious, she stands out, yet she’s also fully respectful of the depth of her peers’ feelings. The live wire with the heart of gold.

Finally, the most reserved and reluctant of the trio, Carol, is a devout Mormon. She has strong sentiments and principles regarding the disposition of Bill, and takes a somewhat adversarial position toward the free-spirited Arvilla. Indeed, how the two of them hook horns on the road as they encounter various challenges, then patch things up, is full of entertainment value, not to mention insight. To me, Carol qua Joan Allen is still the definite hottie in the mix. It takes a while—because she has suppressed so much of her life force for God, husband, and family—to see that she, too, has the heart of a tiger. I like that the writer treats her excessive (to my mind) Mormonism with respect and kindly humor.

What’s more important, they all simply find a way to enjoy themselves and one another. Think of that vintage Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt, Shannon Doherty (actually pretty awful) movie, Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I’m reminded of that movie as I watch Bonneville: My theory is that when you boil most women down to their core essence, most girls want a little simple joy in their lives.

Final notes and caveat

For the auto enthusiasts and scenic beauty fans out there, the movie does take you on a regular, ground-level tour of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (where since the 19-teens, the world land speed records for vehicles have been established). The various places the writer and director visit in the West are plenty enchanting, and provide reason enough to watch the movie by themselves. [The director, Christopher Rowley, only seems to have one or two other credits to his name, and for the writer, Daniel Davis, Bonneville seems to be his only film-related work. So how in the world did a project like this come together? Aspiring young (at heart) screenwriters and directors want to know.]

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[1] Believe it or not, Tom Skerritt was born in 1933; he’s 76.

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