Some people just know how to tell a story. But not the people in “How to Make an American Quilt.”
That really is too bad because the film is basically a collection of the stories of their lives.
“American Quilt” begins with Finn (Winona Ryder) - a 26-year-old graduate student - coming to spend the summer at the country home of her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt (Anne Bancroft). All the young woman is looking for is a peaceful place to work on her master’s thesis (women’s handiwork in tribal cultures) and to reconsider her relationship with her boyfriend.
What Finn gets, however, is an earful from grandma, auntie and several of their female friends, all of whom are working on a project that Finn is surprised to discover is to be her wedding quilt.
As the movie plods along, each woman in turn takes Finn aside to tell a not-especially-fascinating tale. These stories - which concern various infidelities, deaths and births - have no surprise endings, no intriguing twists and few if any fascinating characters.
Some aren’t even stories, really, just warmed over slices of life. Each episode is represented by a square in the quilt that the women are making - a quilt whose theme, we are told, is “where love resides.”
It’s clear that director Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Muriel’s Wedding”) and screenwriter Jane Anderson (“It Could Happen to You”) think of their film as a sort of quilt too. To me, it was more of a blanket - a wet blanket.
Based on the 1991 novel (a graduate thesis, actually) by Whitney Otto, this film has a cast that features a lot of very talented people. In addition to those mentioned above, Kate Nelligan, Maya Angelou, Alfre Woodard, Jean Simmons, Rip Torn, Kate Capshaw, Lois Smith, Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes all play significant roles.
It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that the film does manage to be marginally entertaining for a scene here and there.
But overall, “American Quilt” isn’t just dull, it’s maddeningly smug in a way that reminded me a bit of Ryder’s “Little Women.” And this may suggest a key difference between films about groups of men and films about groups of women:
When the former are bad, they’re often arrogant and abrasive. When the latter go wrong, they are frequently smug and irritating.
How smug? Well, for one thing, there’s that theme, “where love resides,” which certainly ought to tell you something.
“American Quilt” easily is one of the most mannered and least organic movies I have seen in years. Just as it is ending, Finn offers this advice for making a quilt - and, by extension, for making a film and even for living a life:
“There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by instinct. And you have to be brave.”
That’s OK if your instincts are good. If not, all that wonderful bravery just looks really silly.
xxxx “How to Make an American Quilt” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, starring Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Ann Bancroft and Dermot Mulroney Running time: 1:49 Rating: PG-13
Other views Here’s what other critics say about “An American Quilt”: David Hunter/The Hollywood Reporter: Women of all ages and mature audiences will find much to ponder and laugh about in this entertaining film, but almost all of the half-dozen or so stories about love and marriage, told in flashbacks, are engrossing enough to leave one wanting much more than just the “leftover scraps” shown. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: This movie’s called “How to Make an American Quilt”? More like “How to Make an American Yawn.”