Slyly funny, deeply empathetic and blessed with breakout performances from the impossibly youthful River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, My Own Private Idaho gets off to a gangbusters start. And then Shakespeare butts in.
If I phrased that inelegantly, that’s because this is the way writer-director Gus Van Sant incorporates the Bard into his movie. The picture opens on Mike Waters (Phoenix), a homeless teen hustler working the Pacific Northwest in between inconvenient bouts of narcolepsy. Among his compatriots is Scott Favor (Reeves), errant son of Portland’s mayor and a variation on Prince Hal, the wayward monarch-in-waiting from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Such allusions suddenly become explicit about a third of the way through, when Scott and Mike reunite in Portland with the Falstaffian Bob (William Richert) and we get an extended sequence consisting only of Shakespeare’s original language. This happens here and there as the movie continues, and it’s never to the picture’s advantage. When it goes all Henry IV, My Own Private Idaho goes soft.
The strategy also undercuts Phoenix, who’s shaky at Shakespeare but otherwise gives a deeply felt, impulsively alive performance. His Mike is simultaneously casual and jittery, like a nervous partygoer trying to convince himself he’s having a great time. The stress of that tightrope act often triggers his narcolepsy, leaving Mike laid flat on a random street. (“I’m surprised he can exist like this,” Scott wonders.) Mike is both a corrupted vagabond and a precious innocent, never more so than when he’s unwillingly asleep.
Mike is a both a corrupted vagabond and a precious innocent, never more so than when he’s unwillingly asleep.
As for Reeves, it’s remarkable to note that this is one of the most confident performances of his career (perhaps it helps that he’s a bit defter with the Elizabethan language). He makes Scott a hedonist prankster, one who can let the roughness of this life slide off of him because he knows he can leave it behind at any time. While the others turn dangerous tricks and wonder where their next meal might come from, Scott gets into the car of a prospective john with the air of an anthropologist. “What I’m getting at, Mike,” he says after remarking on the number of years he’s been on the streets, “is we’re still alive.”
Van Sant is no anthropologist. In most scenes, his camera huddles next to his characters, as if it were another member of this ramshackle gang. The movie laughs when they laugh (there’s an amusing sequence in which a series of pornographic magazine covers featuring Mike and his friends come to life). And when they’re morose – when they shrink into their thin jackets trying to keep out the drizzle – the camera just sits there with them, in shivering solidarity.
No such intimacy exists in the Shakespearean scenes, however. In fact, it’s shattered. Suddenly, a distance opens between these characters and us in the audience. During these diversions, My Own Private Idaho becomes more of a dramatic experiment – something like an acting exercise – rather than a street-scuffed story. I’m all for Shakespeare onscreen, but here it comes at the expense of originality.