As the opening credits for Alan Parker’s The Road to Wellville roll, the first sounds we hear are laughter and music. It seems a good start for a comedy, except that the laughter is rhythmic and forced, and the film fades in to reveal a line of people in late-1800s dress lined up, laughing in time to a piano and directed by a woman with a megaphone. Cut to a gaggle of reporters faithfully jotting down the pronouncements of a buck-toothed Anthony Hopkins, sitting in his union suit with his feet in two tubs of liquid as he works out on some sort of archaic revolving Soloflex and proselytizes on the evils of meat, sex, and masturbation. The credits end with a shot of well-heeled men and women jogging mindlessly in circles, around and around like some uptown version of Lewis Carroll’s Caucus Race.
If all one wanted was the message of this film, one could stop watching at “Directed by Alan Parker.” It’s perhaps the most common trope of Parker’s films, from Fame and Pink Floyd—The Wall to Angel Heart and The Commitments: denial of the self is ultimately futile, because you can’t escape who you are. Beyond that message, everything else is just spectacle.
Based on the novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, Wellville centers around John Harvey Kellogg (Hopkins, in a role as far from Hannibal Lecter as it’s possible to be), inventor of the corn flake and renowned figure of the fin de siecle mania for self-improvement, and two very different crowds his notoriety draws to the little town of Battle Creek, Michigan. The first sort are the budding entrepreneurs seeking to get in on the ground floor of the dry-cereal industry—over a hundred corn-flake start-ups in Battle Creek alone.
The second is a throng of patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where Kellogg’s notions of purity of mind and body are administered through liberal doses of roughage and enemas and the use of bizarre electrical contraptions whose purpose can often only be guessed. The residents of the San, as it’s called, blithely give themselves over to these strange regimens, confident in the unerring wisdom of Kellogg’s theories of therapeutic purgation. Every orifice is plumbed and nary a bodily fluid goes untouched. This is where the bulk of Wellville‘s humor lies, and if you find the human ass funny, this is your movie.
Will and Eleanor Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda) come to the San to heal a variety of ailments, physical and emotional, between them. Will is dyspeptic, unable to eat anything but dry toast, and kept at arm’s length by Eleanor, who rebuffs his attempts at intimacy until they’re both “well again.” Eleanor is a fanatic believer in Kellogg’s methods, and though Will is highly skeptical, he submits to the San’s unorthodox regimen to win back Eleanor. We follow Will as he is scrubbed, purged, vibrated, smacked around, and subjected to electric current to his testicles by Kellogg’s apparati. Worse, he is separated from Eleanor as part of the San’s prohibition against sex, which leaves him with a constant case of blue-balls, the screaming hots for his gorgeous nurse (Traci Lind) and the consumptive girl in the next room (Lara Flynn Boyle, looking even less healthy than usual), and a continual bafflement as to just how any of this is supposed to help him.
Will’s confusion stems primarily from the fact that he has not learned how to make lemonade from the San’s vast supply of lemons, unlike his new friend Endymion (the always good John Neville), who demonstrates how the electric-current bath designed to diminish sexual stimulus actually has the opposite effect. Eleanor, meanwhile, has fallen in with a freethinking friend (Camryn Mannheim, also excellent) who introduces her to the joys of bicycle seats and a doctor in town who specializes in “therapeutic massage of the womb.” Both of the Lightbodys’ mentors bring Parker’s message home—contrary to Kellogg’s message, self-denial is ultimately the disease, not the cure.
Nor is Kellogg proof against his own hypocrisy, made flesh in the person of his adopted son George (Dana Carvey), a demented wastrel made so primarily, as we see in a number of flashbacks, by the same draconian style of care-giving Kellogg inflicts upon his patients. George skulks through the film, driven by a vicious urge to embarrass Kellogg in front of the San’s patrons and hooking up with a pair of would-be cereal magnates (John Cusack and Michael Lerner) to lend the family name to their inedible product. By the end of the film, Kellogg will be forced to choose between acknowledging his mistakes and allowing his biggest mistake to destroy him.
There are weighty issues threaded throughout the endless supply of fart and shit gags here, but the ratio of high drama and low comedy is fairly even, more than in, say, a Farrelly brothers flick. What prove most obvious and annoying are Parker’s attempts at visual thematic cues. A panning shot along a row of horses’ rear ends cuts to Kellogg and his guests dressed for dinner and merrily eating greens at a long table inside the stable—get it? As Kellogg demonstrates the evils of eating meat by offering a caged wolf a raw steak, the animal’s carnal snarling cuts to a close-up of Eleanor as she is being “manipulated” by the womb doctor—get it? Yes, Alan, we get it, enough already.
Just like its characters, The Road to Wellville has trouble deciding what it’s going to be, a serious picture with rampant sight gags or a lighthearted comedy with tragic undertones. With a cast and source material as good as they are here, a little self-realization would go a long way. Instead, Parker has made a picture that is neither fish nor fowl—or rather, neither lettuce nor cabbage—and thus fails to fulfill the potential of either.