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'Tourist' gives Geena Davis a place in sun

LOS ANGELES "The Accidental Tourist" is one of the bleakest comedies I've ever seen, a movie so sad you can hardly believe you're laughing a lot of the time, and that you're walking out of the theater feeling good. A lot of that credit for that paradox belongs to an actress named Geena Davis, who walks into the movie and walks out with William Hurt's dog.

It happens like this. He meets her in an animal kennel. His young son has been killed by a random act of violence, and his wife has announced that she has to leave him because he is incapable of feeling anything. He is depressed almost to the state of paralysis, and his dog is feeling the same way. So he takes the dog to a kennel, and Geena Davis is waiting there for him, and he's a neurotic time bomb but she doesn't care, because she knows this is the right man for her.

Her character is named Muriel, and Muriel is the character that made Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist one of the best-selling novels in recent years. Half the younger actresses in Hollywood were mentioned for the role, and a lot of them auditioned for it. Geena Davis got to play Muriel after three auditions and a screen test, and I would be very surprised if she is not nominated for an Academy Award on the basis of it. She is wonderfully funny, and filled with an abundance of life and goofy courage.

You may remember her from earlier movies, or maybe not. She's a tall, leggy, brunet with a big smile and a sexy overbite, who got her first break in "Tootsie" and her first major role in "The Fly," playing opposite the man who would become her husband, Jeff Goldblum. In that movie she was a reporter who believed Goldblum's strange story of an experiment gone wrong, believed it enough to stay by him when he began his gruesome transformation. Her next big hit was "Beetlejuice," where she played a woman who haunts her own house.

"I responded to his need in a pretty profound way," she said of "The Fly." "It was a romance that had to work, so that people would believe I would stick around when his ears started falling off." In "The Accidental Tourist," she has a role that is actually somewhat similar, except that the William Hurt character suffers psychic damage instead of physical disintegration.

Geena Davis is surrounded by excellence in the movie - by Hurt, by Kathleen Turner, by a supporting cast of lovable eccentrics - but hers is the performance that makes the others work so well. She is the healer. You sense that right from the first moment she appears on the screen. The downcast and depressed Hurt limps into her animal kennel and wonders and if she could board the animal for a few days. He's a travel writer and he's going out of town.

Davis says sure. No problem. That's how she talks. Short, clipped, each sentence punctuated with a full stop. Then she gives Hurt her name. Her whole name. And information on how to reach her. Just in case. And maybe they could have lunch or dinner. Something like that. Sometime. If he's in the mood. Hurt is too dazed to absorb all of this, but he hands his dog into the care of this strange woman, and before long he has placed his life in her hands, as well.

"Muriel somehow knows that this is it," Davis was explaining to me the other day. "This is the guy. Her internal motor tells me so. The way I acted the scene was, I told myself that Muriel had figured that today was a different day than any day in her life, and the man for her was gonna walk through the door."

Why would she be attracted to a man who is obviously such a problem? Who mumbles under his breath and doesn't look up and isn't even sure if his dog likes him?

"Muriel has been involved with this kind of person before. The walking wounded. Muriel has had such a hard life herself, it's given her a sensitivity to that kind of thing. When she follows him to Paris on the plane, she says, You need me. I just know that I'm good for you. Of course he resents this. But it's the truth."

In the movie, the William Hurt character is a travel writer who writes books for people who don't want to travel, advising them how to have as little contact as possible with anyone in the places where they visit. This is a philosophy he takes to his heart. He comes from an eccentric family, and has a sister (Amy Wright) and two brothers (David Ogden Stiers and Ed Begley Jr.) who still live at home, maintaining a tightly knit routine that becomes increasingly hilarious as the movie goes on.

Hurt and his wife (Kathleen Turner) have been trapped in a deep depression for a year, ever since a man walked into a fast-food restaurant and shot some people, including their son. When she says she must leave him, in one of the movie's first scenes, we see that she is correct. They loved each other, but now it has all turned to ashes.

The movie was directed by Lawrence Kasden ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill"), who told Davis: "You are the life force in this movie. When you come in, a light bulb comes on." Davis said she wanted to find the right tone for Muriel: "I wanted to be careful not to be bitchy or kooky. There were some details in the book that they changed - for example, I was real disappointed not to be able to wear the high spiky heels Muriel wears in the book - but they were good changes, because she's not a nut, she's a single mother who is trying to stay cheerful in the face of a lot of discouraging things in her life."

Saying these things, Davis speaks in a voice that is much different than Muriel's, less clipped, more expansive, and you realize that it was a performance, of course. That's the tricky thing about great performances in great movies: They make such an impression that you have a tendency to treat the actors as if they were the people they were playing. I asked her about her speech, since she makes it one of Muriel's most infectious traits.

"In my personal life I get self-conscious about talking," she admitted. "Am I talking too long? I kind of trail off at the ends of sentences, out of embarrassment. That's something I had to fight with this character. I think everything she says she thinks is worthwhile, and she's gonna speak up. I had to overcome my personal reserve about being that forward, and being able to look people in the eye."

And what about the accent? Muriel lives in Baltimore but the accent is harder to put down.

"This is the first time I've done those sorts of details, thought about how I speak and everything. In other movies I've more of less talked like myself. I started exploring a Baltimore accent, and there are elements of it that I lifted, like the Cyndi Lauper l's and the hard r's. The book talks about how she speaks fast, and I took that as a clue. I loved the book. It made playing the character so much easier. I read it and I said, oh, thank you! It has stuff in there about how Muriel loves country music, and long, complaining ballads about the cold, gray walls of prison, and the sleazy, greasy heart of a man. I love all that stuff. And when I read the script, I was thankful that something like it even existed, let alone if I ever got the part."

Did you meet Anne Tyler?

"It was kind of a profound experience. I didn't know in what awe I held her in until they said she was coming to rehearsal. We all kind of got nervous, like the queen was coming, or some alien being. It was kind of amazing to meet her. She's very beautiful, with a gorgeous calm face, her hair pulled back, she's incredibly elegant. She made me feel like a total geek around her. She came in and we introduced ourselves as our characters. I was almost crying. I said, Hi, I'm Muriel. We could tell that she was meeting her characters in real life for the first time."

With "Tootsie," "The Fly" and "The Accidental Tourist," Davis has started her acting career right at the top, and if she gets Academy recognition in April, it will be right in time for her next movie, a comedy named "Earth Girls Are Easy." Previewed at last September's Toronto Film Festival, it's a weirdo outer-space musical with a Day-Glo punk look, and Davis plays an earth girl who falls in love with Jeff Goldblum, as a furry green alien.

"We kept saying we'd like to do a romantic comedy together," she said, "and we got `Earth Girls.' We'd still love to do one."

And yet, I said, there's something a little sarcastic about both of you, a certain sense in serious scenes that you may be privately amused.

"I am. I am, and Jeff is, too. It's true. We find a lot of things funny. I remember once we woke up and put on a nighttime interview show, `Nightime,' or `Nightwatch,' or something, and it was 3 in the morning and we didn't put the sound on. Jeff started being the host and I started being the guest, and we were making up dialogue and laughing until I was sick."

She grinned. "And another thing I've started to do is, I pretend to be God. Sometimes Jeff will say something mean to me, and then I'll go into a deep voice and ask him if he knew that God was listening. And he'll say he didn't know I was there. And I'll say, I'm always here."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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