They got the hots and the hates for each other, do Eddie and May. Have ever since they were kids; will till the day they die. They fight, they sulk. They fall into a passion out by the horse truck, and she knees his crotch. He is a cowboy, better known as the Death of the Western Hero: to strut his forlorn machismo he arrogantly lassoes garbage cans and jukeboxes. She hangs around the tatty trailer camp, sponging the Mojave Desert dust off her body, waiting for night and their star-crossed adagio to start all over again. No use her slamming the industrial-strength front door on Eddie; he'll just kick it through. She wouldn't, can't have it any other way. They've got to keep these lusts and animosities going like weasels in heat. It's in their blood. And heaven help the poor interloper--a nice guy from the next town, say, or an innocent moviegoer--who tries to understand them.
On stages all over America, Fool for Love (1983) was the stark tale of two people locked inside a shared obsession--and a spare anthology of modern theater. The moral claustrophobia of No Exit, the strange sibling bond of The Glass Menagerie, the guilty sustaining secret of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the menacing silences of Harold Pinter all brooded under the skin of Sam Shepard's naturalism. So the film version, which Shepard wrote and stars in, should be an event and not a puzzlement. In "opening up" the play, Robert Altman has dissipated some of its caged-animal tension and replaced it with torpid mannerisms. Eddie (Shepard) sucks all the existential meaning out of a toothpick; May (Kim Basinger) thumbs her full lips; the Old Man (Harry Dean Stanton), who has intruded on both their lives way too long, tenderizes a harmonica and gulps down his guilt.
Be warned: this is not the Altman of M * A * S * H and Nashville, the funky satirist with an ear for low-life Americana. It is the European Altman, who in Images and 3 Women and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean threw sensitive women into the nightmare zone between past and present, reality and fantasy. In Fool for Love, he situates May's sad childhood literally next door to her fated present and sets Eddie's monologue memories colliding with the flashback images that accompany them. You can have some cerebral fun with this game of What's Going On? What you miss is the gonadal kick of watching a nuclear family detonating its own apocalypse.
Shepard, premier playwright and matinee idol, fits the cowpoke boots just fine, but he is too snaky and controlled to play a tortured loser. Basinger remains an in-joke of Hollywood casting directors; 46 other American actresses could have made some emotional sense out of May, or at least sent her smoldering in mystery. Stanton, with his haunted, pinched face and chirruping alibis, steals the show--or, rather, is awarded it by default. And Randy Quaid, as a gentleman caller, is a perfect audience surrogate: decent, dogged, perplexed by a family squabble that admits no strangers to its terrible embrace. The door clangs shut, and we are outside. --By Richard Corliss