`LEAVING Normal" is a movie that yearns for adventure. Not five minutes into the story, it leaves motion-picture normality behind - with a family car flying off a highway and into the night sky, turning what started as an ordinary melodramatic scene (quarreling parents, unhappy children) into a heady flight of fantasy.
But this is just the intro to the picture, and unfortunately, its adventurous mood doesn't last beyond the opening credits. When the movie's real story begins, we learn that "Leaving Normal" is going to be boringly normal despite its title, which refers not to a state of mind, but to the town of Normal, Wyo., which one of our heroines has decided to leave.
Her name is Marianne, and she's one of the children from the opening scene, now grown up and living with an abusive husband. She is determined to abandon both him and Normal, but she has nowhere else to go - until she hooks up with an unlikely new friend named Darly, a foul-mouthed barmaid who has her own reasons for leaving Normal behind. Together they head for Eternity Bluff, an Alaskan town where Darly is convinced a family homestead will offer her and her friend a happy new life.
Naturally, all sorts of adventures greet this slightly odd couple on the road, where they encounter such characters as a truck-driving poet, a waitress with the unlikely name of 66, and a lascivious man who lusted for Darly during an earlier phase of her checkered life. There's also a subplot about Darly's longing for a baby she abandoned years ago, which reveals a soft spot inside this otherwise tough-talking woman.
The basic situation of "Leaving Normal" clearly owes a lot to "Thelma and Louise," the female buddy-movie that made such an impression on audiences last year. "Thelma and Louise" was hardly an important film, but it had a certain energy and originality going for it.
"Leaving Normal" is too much of a clone to be called original, and its energy is intermittent. Everything in the picture seems calculated rather than spontaneous, from the timing of Darly's expletives to the extremity of Marianne's emotional breakdowns. This is a trademark of the film's director, Edward Zwick, whose television career (the popular "thirtysomething" was his brainchild) has taught him to strive for quick effects rather than lasting values. The same problem marred his earlier film, "Glory."
The stars do their best with the limited opportunities offered them by Edward Solomon's screenplay and Mr. Zwick's directing, and their performances are the best aspect of the movie. Meg Tilly shows a new maturity and intensity as the naive-yet-worldly Marianne, and Christine Lahti brings surprising dignity to Darly, a character saddled with more than her share of familiar mannerisms.
In my view, their efforts are no match for the movie's river of cliches and self-consciously "magical" twists, which have little logic and less charm. But then, I didn't like the female-buddy sentimentality of "Fried Green Tomatoes," either, and it's been winning the hearts of moviegoers for the past several months. If unabashed romance and wish-fulfillment are what you're hankering for, "Leaving Normal" might be just the ticket. For my taste, it's altogether too normal - measured, predictable, ordinary - to make for a very interesting time. Rated R.