NEW YORK — `THELMA & LOUISE'' is an interesting try for something new from the Hollywood movie machine: It's an attempt to make a popular action-adventure-comedy that's aimed straight at the mass-market box office but also succeeds as a statement on feminist issues. Hollywood's track record isn't too strong when it comes to seeing the world through women's eyes, so it's always refreshing to see a major, all-stops-out production that isn't dominated primarily by men. This much said, though, it's unfortunate that ``Thelma & Louise'' was directed by a man - Ridley Scott - who has a weakness for flashy, shallow filmmaking. In his hands, what might have been a slam-bang feminist manifesto becomes just another action picture with too many cheap thrills.
The title characters are a couple of feisty Arkansas women: Thelma's a homemaker with a block-headed husband, Louise is a coffee-shop waitress. Itching for something new, they decide to leave menfolk behind for a few days, head off on their own, and have an adventure or two.
Their weekend begins frivolously enough, with a little flirting by Thelma in a roadside beer joint. But the man who's romancing her turns out to be as bad as they come. He takes Thelma outside and tries to rape her, in a scene that slams the movie from off-the-wall comedy to hard-boiled melodrama, and Louise's violent response raises questions about what sort of traumas might be buried in her own past. The rapist is killed, and now both women are on the run, from the law as well as the men in their live s. It's hard to imagine how their adventure could have a happy ending.
The trouble with ``Thelma & Louise'' is that the filmmakers haven't woven its different moods into a smooth and unified whole. You always feel you're lurching from one emotional extreme to another, often with little reason except the director's decision that it's time for another surprise, never mind what kind. It's hard to get bored under these circumstances, but it's also hard to get intelligently involved with the characters or the issues they raise - the way women are constantly turned into sexual o bjects by men, for example.
After a while, the movie's willingness to do anything for an effect becomes downright vulgar. Sometimes the vulgarity is emotional, as when Thelma hops cheerfully into bed with a near-stranger almost immediately after her close call with the would-be rapist; and sometimes it's visual, as when the flm works up a whole subplot with no purpose except to climax it with an exploding-truck scene. Another problem is the movie's lopsided tendency to show men as devils or angels, just as Hollywood has traditiona lly done with women. It makes a villain out of every male in the story except one, and he's so saintly that he strains credulity.
Also questionable, on an artistic level, is director Scott's decision to tone down the densely textured cinematic style of earlier movies like ``Blade Runner'' and ``Black Rain,'' aiming instead for sheer narrative propulsion. Since that dense texture was the main virtue those previous Scott pictures had, its absence here is a minus.
``Thelma & Louise'' is well-acted by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as the title characters, and by Harvey Keitel as the one good man in the picture. But it proves that Hollywood still has a long way to go before its feminist credentials can be called respectable.