Let’s all take a moment to metaphorically pour some out for River Phoenix, a talent taken far before his time; our modern-day James Dean. With that, if one were to go through his limited filmography and try and pick one film that would best represent his ability and talent, my money would be on My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s exploration of a troubled youth and his search for what matters in his life. While Phoenix is undoubtedly the star here, and he would end up winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice for the film, there’s a lot more at play here than just a vehicle for Phoenix, though why there’s as much as there is is still a question to be answered.
Mike is a street hustler with a predominantly male clientèle, making his meager living client to client. He, his friend Scott, and a gang of other hustlers are all under the wing of Bob Pigeon, a large man who seems straight out of a piece of literature (more on this later). Mike, however, only wants to find his mother, who has been missing from his life for a while, and so he and Scott go on a personal journey from Portland, Oregon to Idaho to try and track Mike’s mother down; all while Scott is preparing to inherit a massive estate from his father when he turns 21. Van Sant has readily admitted that the film is essentially two stories cut and pasted together; the story of Mike, and the story of Scott. While the story of Mike is general indie-flick fare, which while enjoyable mostly thanks to Phoenix does seem to run the gamut of familiarity, it is the story of Scott, played by Keanu Reeves, that turns out to be the outlier of the film. Scott’s story, involving he being a rowdy youngling who wants to play to his own tune rather than his father’s under the tutelage of a portly overseer, is straight out of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which were previously adapted by Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight. Bob is an obvious Falstaff, which makes Scott his Prince Hal, and the dialogue in the sections of the film that focus on Scott’s story is lifted right out of Shakespeare, which admittedly made it difficult to get into some of the dialogue, especially with Keanu Reeves behind a good chunk of it. The half of the film that follows Phoenix around was the half that I enjoyed more; again, mostly for Phoenix, who is in amazing form here. Easily the most enjoyable part of the Shakespeare sections was William Richert as Bob Pigeon, who could sell the dialogue far greater than Reeves or even Phoenix in some spots.
Shakespeare has never really been my thing, which is why I had a rough time getting through the middle portion of the film, and if you’re like me, you will likely have just a hard time with it as I did, seeing as the dialogue goes for full-on Shakespeare rather than merely adapting it. Still, this was definitely unique, and the assets of the film turned out to add up to a lot more than I would’ve thought otherwise. There’s reasons to seek out and watch this one, but there are also reasons to potentially avoid it, and this evening out is largely why I gave it the rating I did. But, for what it’s worth, I did enjoy this one in the end, even with the middle section, which I guess speaks for the effectiveness of the film as a whole, or even as two halves.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10