A Misbegotten Marriage

Goin' South Directed by Jack Nicholson Now playing at the Sack Charles

WATCHING GOIN' SOUTH makes you think Burt Reynolds must have had something to do with it. The cutting one-liners are tossed off with a certain macho flair, the male lead is yet another in a series of adorable scoundrel types, and the woman is one more unfulfilled, sublimated prude who all too willingly gives herself up to the irresistible charms of a confirmed ne'er-do-well. The film, in fact, aspires to little more than giving the audience a good belly laugh every 15 minutes or so. Your funny bone is taken good care of, all right, but a stand-up comic can do the same thing in a fraction of the time. Once the chuckling subsides you are left with just another low-budget Western and a vacuous feeling. Vacuous because the film is silly, and vacuous because you have to sit through all the gunfights, the gallows scenes and the final ride into the sunset.

Jack Nicholson plays the role of Henry Moone with an unmistakable relish that suggests self-indulgence as the major appeal of the part. Moone is a bank robber and horse thief whose neck is scheduled to be caressed by the coarse noose of a hangman's rope, as reward for his many trans gressions against border town society and the upstanding folks of Longhorn, Texas. An ornery sort by nature, Moone greets the attending man of the cloth at the gallows with an irreverent "Go to hell." This kind of gutter humor holds the film together during the ensuing two hours, but there is little else in the movie to hold your attention for very long.

Nicholson, having set out to direct a feature-length movie, obviously decided he might as well use a plot while he's at it, no matter how flimsy it might be. It turns out, then, that the city laws of Longhorn include an ordinance that provides a last-minute out for the condemned. If one of the Longhorn ladies can muster up enough courage to take a fellow like Henry Moone as her lawfully wedded husband, she can literally give the jailbird a new lease on life. "Ordinance wives" they call 'em in Longhorn, and much to the good fortune of one Henry Moone, he hears a fragile voice call out "I'll take him" as the black hood comes down over his head.

Moone's overwhelming sense of release and deliverance is undimmed by the wrinkled skin of the elderly spinster who claims him. Seconds later, however, fate cruelly dashes Moone's hopes: overcome with emotion, the doddering septuagenarian suffers a heart attack and croaks on the spot. Back up the steps heads Moone, but Lady Luck once again intercedes on his behalf. Another woman steps forward to take Moone home with her.

THE HORSE THIEF'S new wife, Miss Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen), is not exactly your average female protagonist in a Western. Ambitious and pennywise, Julia lives on a farm outside Longhorn, which lies near an abandoned gold mine bequeathed by her late father. In need of a man to help her strike it rich and return to her beloved Philadelphia, Julia settles for the grungy Moone, despite his atrocious table manners and ravenous sexual appetite.

From the outset of this marriage by convenience, man and wife try to get what they can out of each other. Julia shows Henry the finer points of gold prospecting, while he applies himself to Julia's education in bed. "You can always tell a virgin on account of the whites of the eyes aren't clear," Henry assures her. "I don't want to brag a lot, but I have on occassion put a gal or two in tune with nature." Undaunted, the feisty Julia spits back, "I'm sure nature is grateful."

And so it goes. Henry and Julia find the mother lode of gold, romantically as well as financially. Temptations to escape the marriage present themselves to both Henry and Julia, but after initial weakness, man and wife go back to each other in the end. Moone has his way--the couple finally heads south to his beloved Mexico, rather than the City of Brotherly Love, and presumably live prosperously ever after...

Perhaps the most unfortunate feature of Goin' South is its unfulfilled potential. Nicholson cast John Belushi in a minor role as a Mexican deputy sheriff of Longhorn, and the possibilities of this team could have been endless. Instead, Belushi pops up in only a few scenes where he can show off his Mexican accent and look sleazy. Expanding the part, or casting Belushi in a more prominent role, might well have saved the movie from becoming a low-budget exercise in the training of Jack Nicholson, director. But that's just how it wound up: filming more of the familiar amber-and-brown-soaked Texas landscapes doesn't seem a sufficiently compelling reason for making a movie, much less watching it. To have wasted a talent as versatile and fresh as Belushi's in a cameo role is enough cause to send Nicholson back to those gallows, Julia Tate or no.