Director Reaches For Lost Ground

In `Texasville,' Bogdanovich tries to regain the spirit of his acclaimed `Last Picture Show'. FILM: REVIEW

`TEXASVILLE,'' the new movie by Peter Bogdanovich, brings back into focus one of the most perplexing Hollywood careers of the past 25 years. There was a time when everything Mr. Bogdanovich touched became gold. Then there was a much longer time when hardly anything he attempted turned out right. ``Texasville'' finds him steering in what seems a sure-fire direction - doing a belated sequel to ``The Last Picture Show,'' his most respected movie - but not quite rediscovering the magic formula he once had.

Critics love to mull over Bogdanovich's career, since he started as a critic. In the mid-1960s, just a few years after such French critics as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard launched major filmmaking careers in Europe, he became the first American to attempt the same transition - directing ``Targets'' for producer Roger Corman, on a shoestring budget and a ridiculously short schedule. It earned deservedly strong reviews with its cleverly written, smartly directed story about a horror-movie star (played by Boris Karloff) and a young assassin, but disappeared quickly from theaters at a time when real-life assassinations made audiences uneasy about its subject.

It was Bogdanovich's second feature, ``The Last Picture Show,'' that put him prominently on the movie-directing map, garnering eight Academy Award nominations and numerous other prizes. Two more successes, ``What's Up, Doc?'' and ``Paper Moon,'' soon followed, making Bogdanovich a huge winner at the box office and a favorite with reviewers who respected his ability to master one genre after another - from nostalgic drama to screwball farce to Damon Runyon-style comedy.

There were dissenting voices, though. ``The Last Picture Show'' was influenced so strongly by the work of earlier directors - especially John Ford, whom Bogdanovich had studied in his days as a critic - that one reviewer said it was less a creatively made movie than a strenuous feat of memory. More critics started grumbling when ``What's Up, Doc?'' allegedly purloined too many ideas from Howard Hawks's comedies (a charge Bogdanovich rejected) and ``Paper Moon'' continued to draw on classic Hollywood sources, adding a streak of vulgarity as its main original contribution.

A poorly received version of ``Daisy Miller,'' with Cybill Shepherd out of her depth, and a disastrous musical called ``At Long Last Love'' with a singing and dancing Burt Reynolds, badly slowed the Bogdanovich bandwagon's momentum - leading detractors to crow that he'd finally gotten the comeuppance he long deserved. Pictures like the heavy-handed ``Nickelodeon,'' the pointless ``Saint Jack,'' and the ill-starred ``They All Laughed'' failed to revive his fortunes. Only the conventional ``Mask,'' featuring young Eric Stoltz and Laura Dern, interrupted a long losing streak.

With such a history, it's surprising Bogdanovich hasn't returned to the tried-and-true territory of his early successes before now. ``Texasville'' finds him mining his own bygone work for inspiration, just as he once mined that of Ford, Hawks, and other masters of classical Hollywood style. Unfortunately, the maneuver doesn't accomplish what it sets out to do. ``Texasville'' is loose, friendly, and likable - a regular puppydog of a movie - but it doesn't recapture the wit, spirit, or melancholy charm of its 1971 predecessor.

Set in the 1950s, ``The Last Picture Show'' focused on a town in decline, where the imminent closing of the local movie theater symbolized the worst kind of ``progress'' and changing times. ``Texasville'' revisits many of the same characters 30 years later, grown from restless high-schoolers to restless adults with unsteady marriages and kids so feisty they're impossible to keep up with, much less control. The community symbol this time is the upcoming Old Texasville Centennial, an event that consumes large amounts of effort and thought, even though nobody seems quite sure what the point of the celebration is.

In this atmosphere we visit Duane Jackson, now an oil millionaire fallen on hard times; Lester Marlow, now a bank president who expects the Feds to toss him in prison for mismanagement any minute; and Jacy Farrow, the one-time Homecoming Queen whose European movie-star career has been cut short by the death of her child. Also on hand are moody and energetic Ruth Popper, and deeply troubled Sonny Crawford, whose sanity appears to be ebbing with frightening speed.

All these folks are played (respectively) with gusto by a first-rate cast that has grown in skill and seasoning over the years. Jeff Bridges is still one of Hollywood's most attractive leading men; Randy Quaid has become an amazingly versatile character actor; Ms. Shepherd is a dozen times more capable than she was in the original ``Picture Show'' period. Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms also make solid contributions to the new film.

Too bad there's not a more substantial project to make use of those contributions. ``Texasville'' rambles along in an amiable way but never gets to the heart of the issues it raises, from the shakiness of modern marriage to the meaning of community in a mobile and increasingly rootless age. Based on a Larry McMurtry novel, like the first ``Picture Show,'' the new movie is determined to be gritty, amusing, sometimes heartbreaking, and always irrestistible. In the end, though, its message is as familiar as it is poignant: You can go home again, but you can't expect things to be the same when you get there.

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