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Strong acting can't help Neon Bible overcome weak plot

THIS WEEK AT THE KENDALL

The Neon Bible

Directed by Terence Davies.

Starring Gena Rowlands, Denis Leary, Diana Scarwid.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

It would be great to report that The Neon Bible is not only worth seeing but also a satisfying movie experience, but unfortunately, only the first statement is true. Terence Davies' latest film looks as ravishing as Distant Voices, Still Lives, or The Long Day Closes, and it uses musical cues to evoke the past as well as any of his previous works. But he is not telling his own story here, and the story he has leaves a lot to be desired.

The novel on which The Neon Bible is based is a juvenile work of John Kennedy Toole, the eccentric Louisiana author noted for posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature eight years after committing suicide. He won for A Confederacy of Dunces, a work which was rejected by one publisher after another during its author's life but is now considered to be a major comic masterpiece. His mother succeeded in getting the book published after his death, and the rest is history.

Toole wrote The Neon Bible when he was 16 years old; it would probably never have seen print without the bizarre and phenomenal success of his later work. It concerns David, a boy growing up in the rural South in the years surrounding World War II. The narrative is framed by the nighttime musing on a train of this boy about events in his past. It develops that he is running from that past and his participation in it.

Davies works as much of his magic as he can on the material he has been given and is generously assisted by his actors. Denis Leary and Diana Scarwid play David's parents, poverty-stricken and unable to support each other, even with the revival-tent religion they both cling desperately to. Into their lives like an exotic night bird flies Aunt Mae, played by Gena Rowlands, who becomes David's closest friend and the final straw in the battle that has become his parent's lives.

Aunt Mae used to be a nightclub singer, and she still wears flamboyant clothes and strikes one defiant pose after another. Her washed-out sister and denim-clad brother-in-law can't deal with her citified ways and fear mightily what the neighbors might think. Everybody is supposed to be the same in the Bible Belt - those who are different have got to get out.

Gena Rowlands delivers a complete Aunt Mae, one who flirts with her seven-year-old nephew, feeds his imagination, and is willing to abandon him to further her career. She can be cocky one second and humiliated the next and is believable every step of the way. Leary and Scarwid also develop well the inconsistencies of their characters. David is competently played by two actors, Drake Bell for the scenes when he is seven, and Jacob Tierney for his teenage scenes.

Davies creates some intensely beautiful set pieces, as one would expect given his previous work. Watch for the town women singing "Chatanooga Choo-Choo" while their men are off being soldiers and for a schoolhouse recital of the Pledge of Allegiance while Tara's Theme from "Gone With the Wind" swells in the background. The torch-lit tent revival half-way through the story simultaneously allures and frightens. If it weren't for the absurdity of the climax and its lack of relevance to all that has gone before, The Neon Bible could be highly recommended. Too bad.