"Local Hero"

Al Gore's favorite film, a sweet and off-kilter Scottish comedy, is no "Boys Town" -- and that's a good thing.

Published October 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Local Hero"
Directed by Bill Forsyth
Starring Peter Riegert, Denis Lawson, Peter Capaldi, Fulton Mackay, Burt Lancaster
Warner Bros.; widescreen and full frame
Extras: Theatrical trailer

It's not hard to guess why Al Gore recently named "Local Hero" as his favorite movie -- it's environmentally sound. This 1983 picture, the best from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth ("Gregory's Girl," "Comfort and Joy"), is a melancholy culture-clash comedy about Mac (Peter Riegert), the deal maker of a Houston oil company sent to a coastal Scottish village to buy up the place so his company can build a refinery. The twist is that with dreams of being rich in their heads, the locals are champing at the bit to sell. It's a measure of Forsyth's magic that the village is saved and everyone still gets what he or she wants. Everyone except Mac, who falls under a spell that he can't shake.

But this is also the oddest film any politician has named as his favorite in years. Those choices have ranged from predictably sentimental hoo-ha (Newt Gingrich's choice: "Boys Town") to reliably brain-dead (Dan Quayle's fave: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"). There's nothing here that will embarrass Gore. "Local Hero" is as sweet and loving as movies get. But it's also about as off-kilter as they get, too.

In my experience, people have two reactions to Forsyth's comedies -- head-scratching bafflement or complete surrender. Those of us who fall into the latter category take Forsyth's movies to heart. Talk to people who love "Local Hero" and you'll find they've fallen as much under the pixilated spell cast by its landscape as Mac does. (As shot by Chris Menges, in colors as muted and diffuse as a North Sea painting by Corot, it's hard not to fall in love with Scotland.) Riegert, who plays the entire movie in a state of soft abashment, goes from striding along the beach in his business suit, not even noticing the stunning scenery, to being a reliable part of that scenery -- unshaven, roaming the coast in a cable-knit sweater, his internal rhythms utterly and sweetly discombobulated by the place. The jokes may seem cut from a familiar cloth -- small-town types whose wiles put a city slicker at a disadvantage -- but Forsyth's jokes are so sidelong, oblique and dry at the same time that no two people who love the movie are apt to laugh at the same things. And if they do laugh at the same gags, they're likely to laugh at completely different times. Everyone has his or her own favorite joke in a Bill Forsyth movie. (In "Local Hero," mine is the baby who shows up in scene after scene, without anyone seeming to have the slightest idea whom he belongs to.)

In the current issue of Film Comment Cameron Crowe says that Forsyth's genius lies in making his movies completely out of the incidental moments other directors would have cut. That sums up Forsyth's whole indirect technique. He's one of those rare directors who realizes that there is no such thing as normal -- or, rather, that what passes for normal is beguilingly idiosyncratic. The natural state of nearly all the characters in "Local Hero," from grizzled old beachcomber Ben (Fulton Mackay) to Mac's boss, Happer (Burt Lancaster, getting into the film's oddball soul), is intoxication by moonbeam. Even the sharpest, the town's representative in its business dealings, Gordon Urquhart (wonderful Denis Lawson), has his goofy side, breaking into a desktop soft-shoe when he's certain he's about to make a bundle.

Falling in love with a place almost always has the opposite effect of falling in love with a person. You know the Scottish lovebug has bitten you in "Local Hero" when, like Mac, you realize it has made your heart beat slower.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Movies