NEW YORK — THE movies may not be better than ever, but they're certainly longer. Many of this season's would-be blockbusters clock in at well over two hours, and some are in the three-hour range. It's probably just a coincidence that so many pictures are so lengthy at the moment, but Hollywood may have found a way to compete with TV miniseries and thick bestselling books. If sheer bulk is what the public wants, let 'em have it!"The Prince of Tides" lasts about 130 minutes. That doesn't place it among the longest of the long, but it has the feel of a saga or even an epic - swinging from the Deep South to the depths of Manhattan as it charts the history of a family over two generations. What's most striking about the movie isn't its length, its variety, or its high-pitched emotion, however. Rather it's the willingness of the filmmakers to let a single actor dominate the story in almost every scene: Nick Nolte, who has never shown such range and versatility on the wide screen before. He plays Tom Wingo, a South Carolina teacher and football coach who's dogged by memories of a very mixed childhood - when he was surrounded by Southern courtesy and a beautiful seacoast environment, but terrorized by a brutal father and weakly comforted by a confused and duplicitous mother. Tom has grown up to be a comparatively stable man despite the hardships of his early life. But his sister Savannah has been less fortunate. The movie begins in the wake of her latest suicide attempt, and follows Tom during a long visit to New York, where he consults with Dr. Lowenstein, his sister's psychiatrist. Their sessions grow into wrenching explorations of the past that Tom and Savannah shared - and eventually into a love affair between Tom and Dr. Lowenstein, both of whom have troubled marriages with unfaithful spouses. Tom is a superb role for Nolte to play: an attractive man whose verbal skills (former English teacher) and physical talents (energetic football coach) are accompanied by fascinating troubles to talk about and eventually to learn to cry over. The only trouble with Nolte's performance is that director Streisand and her screenwriters, Pat Conroy and Becky Johnston, allow it to dominate everything else in the movie - including Ms. Streisand's own good acting as the brilliant and beautiful psychiatrist. This is peculiar, since the story seems designed as a drama about two women, a dedicated physician, and a victim who desperately needs healing. Yet the storytellers (working from Mr. Conroy's novel) put handsome Tom in the spotlight at every opportunity. You almost forget that poor Savannah is the one whose life nearly ended by her own hand, since Tom gets all the on-screen psychiatry sessions; and it's never explained how he reached adulthood so successfully while his gifted sister grew ever more confused and depressed. Even the plot's most melodramatic event, a horrifying gang-rape shown in a flashback, emphasizes Tom's trauma far more than Savannah's hideous experience. "The Prince of Tides" would be richer and more persuasive if it gave more attention to secondary characters who often seem pushed out of the way. The characters are worth caring about, however, and it's to the movie's credit that we want to know more about them. Too bad the filmmakers crafted an oddly lopsided story that turns out to be less a fully rounded drama than a long love letter to the character they like best.
Rated R for strong language and a scene of sex-related violence.