How to Make an American Quilt

on October 06, 1995 by Christine James
   Doomed to be deemed an Angloized, less potent "The Joy Luck Club," this adaptation of the Whitney Otto novel leaves one more numbed with feeble pity than did its cathartic counterpart, in which Wayne Wang masterfully blended tragedy, triumph and even humor in its diverse scenarios. This Jocelyn Moorhouse ("Proof") film, on the other hand, repeats the same story to exhaustion: lost or misspent youth and the pain of betrayal. Winona Ryder plays Finn, a 26-year-old grad student working on her umpteenth college thesis; each time she comes close to finishing one, she loses interest or perhaps dreads the inevitable moving forward that would follow its completion. When Finn's boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) proposes marriage, fear of commitment drives her to move in with her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt (Anne Bancroft) for the summer, purportedly to finish her latest thesis, which is about female culture and its relationship to ritualistic craftmaking. Not coincidentally, her kin belong to a decades-old group that embodies that unconscious coupling of sisterhood and artistry: Their quilting circle produces very personal works of art, and its members have decided their next project will be Finn's wedding quilt (despite her uncertainty regarding the concept of matrimony). The quilt's theme, "Where Love Resides," provokes a flood of tragic memories from all involved. Each of the circle's seven members (including Alfre Woodard, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan and poet Maya Angelou) experiences flashbacks of a terrible love-related trauma; for most, those traumas have tainted the rest of their days. Though the repetition can be desensitizing, by the end the quilt could double as a cry- ing towel; in a contrivedly moving montage, each individual's anguished affair is symbolized by the quilt patch she's made. But this heartstring tugging is scored with a melodramatic violin, leaving audiences embarrassed to react. What's more, although it's indicated that these experiences are teaching Finn a spectrum of lessons, what she learns and why she is guided to make certain decisions remain unclear. Performances are strong all around (with the exception of Ryder, who gives only a variant of the character she always seems to play). But the film becomes tedious as the audience quickly sees where things are headed, and it becomes a countdown: how many of the protagonists have told their stories of how their lives were ruined or complicated by a man, and how many are left to be endured.    Starring Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou, Alfre Woodard, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan, Samantha Mathis and Kate Capshaw. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Written by Jane Anderson. Produced by Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford. A Universal release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for a scene of drug use, some sensuality and nudity. Running time: 116 min.
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