`True Stories': another plus for David Byrne

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David Byrne is the brightest new actor on the American movie scene. He isn't new as a celebrity, of course. His rock group, Talking Heads, is probably the most respected band to spring from the postpunk ``new wave'' period, and Byrne himself made a strong impression in the group's concert film, ``Stop Making Sense.'' After the success of that picture, nobody doubted that Byrne would soon take the lead in a regular movie -- perhaps directing it, too, since he has worked behind the camera on seven rock videos. The predictions prove correct in ``True Stories,'' a picture that's as likable and offbeat as its star -- who not only directed it while playing the main role, but wrote the screenplay with Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley.

In two of his three jobs on the movie -- acting and directing -- Byrne has done himself proud. His performance is a marvel. And while his filmmaking skill has a lot of maturing to do, his adventurous spirit and visual imagination show enormous promise.

This said, it's too bad the screenplay doesn't offer more substantial raw material for Byrne's talent to play with. ``True Stories'' is ingratiating in its modesty, bold in its simplicity, and downright experimental in its willingness to leave reality behind and soar into gentle fantasy. Still, it seems flimsy much of the time, and it doesn't add up to much. It's a nice but minor film.

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The episodic plot of ``True Stories'' is based on a collection of so-called ``human interest'' articles that Byrne clipped from tabloid newspapers and developed into a wandering narrative. The setting is Virgil, a small town in Texas, which is about to celebrate its sesquicentennial -- a word the local citizens love to roll around their mouths for a while before letting it fly out.

Byrne plays a character who isn't really a character at all but an on-screen narrator who drives and strolls around the town, finding charm and pleasure in everything he sees. A very engaging guy, he's also kind of weird as he talks earnestly into the camera -- explaining how convenient the shopping malls are, how efficient the highways are, how interesting the people are. He even enjoys the things he doesn't enjoy. ``I don't usually like parades,'' he says at a parade, ``but this one's different!'' To our eyes, of course, it couldn't be more ordinary.

In contrast to this fellow, who could be a cowboy from outer space for all we know, the other characters are Texans to their bones. Chief among them is Louis, a bulky but gentle man whose only desire is to settle down with a wife and family, both of which seem determined to elude him.

More exotic is Miss Rollings, a woman so wealthy that she no longer bothers to get out of bed -- lounging in her boudoir all day, pampered by servants and beguiled by an overworked TV set. Smack in the middle class, by contrast, is the respectable family led by Virgil's proudest booster, Earl Culver, who tends to illustrate his dinner-table conversation by throwing pieces of food around. The town's population also includes a bombastic preacher, a woman so cute she's known as the Cute Woman, and an old man who (in typical tabloid-story fashion) claims he can solve people's problems by carrying out nutty rituals in his living room.

It's fun to poke into the lives of these people and to watch the varied lot of performers Byrne has chosen to play them -- from stage veteran Swoosie Kurtz and performance artist Spalding Gray to singing star Pops Staples and newcomer Matthew Posey, a Texas native. Other assets of ``True Stories'' include clear-eyed camera work by Ed Lachman, a childlike theme song composed by Meredith Monk, and a sprightly rock score performed by Talking Heads and members of the cast, who do their own singing in the picture's many musical interludes.

If it had a hefty amount of substance to match its innovative structure and freewheeling mood, ``True Stories'' might have been the movie of the year. As it stands, it's an amiable entertainment that promises more than it manages to deliver. On the other hand, not many pictures bother even to promise this much nowadays.

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