A Thousand Acres, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, transplants Shakespeare's King Lear into a modern American Gothic landscape. You can look at it two ways: it's either a deeply serious and moving drama, at pains to realistically portray the emotional problems of a self-destructing family; or at best, it's a suicidally depressing, monumentally overwrought cinematic carbuncle which should have been shot at birth.
This film is a travesty. From the deeply unpleasant one-dimensional characters, to the risible and cynical attempts to perpetually squeeze cheap emotional responses from an unbelieving audience at every opportunity, never did an hour-and-forty-five feel like a lifetime. Forget all the crap about the universal themes of power and love across the generations. Forget the fact that some seriously talented actors have their names unwisely attached to this monster.
Instead, imagine 50 episodes of the worst American daytime soap you can think of, and distill all the anguish, tears, pathos and hatred into this one film. From cancer, insanity, alcoholism, child abuse, death, failed affairs, doomed marriages, repression, betrayal and a destructive inter-family court case, the dizzying spiral of catastrophe piles one fresh hell on top of another with such unashamed melodrama, that the crushing weight of its own clichés will hopefully sink this film without trace.
A Thousand Acres has no redeeming qualities other than the stunning locations and the panoramic cinematography. Jason Robards is simply a tyrannical bastard with two emotions to explore: rage and silence. Jessica Lange does little other than smile wanly and cry prettily every five minutes. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a bitchy lawyer, remains a non-entity throughout, and Michelle Pfeiffer, easily the most rounded character Acres has to offer, is required to merely seethe anger through every single pore. And everyone else? Throwaway camera fodder.
Terminally slushy sentimentalists may indeed love it, but for everyone else, A Thousand Acres will be about as rewarding as a dose of anthrax.
Only Pfeiffer can walk away from this trauma-drenched tale of fucked-up farm folk with her reputation fairly intact. Clichéd, one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out characters and unremitting pathos doth not great cinema make.