One of the first things we see in True Stories is a title card that reads, "A film about a bunch of people in Virgil, Texas." This summarizes the movie, directed and co-written by Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne, perfectly. Anyone attempting to delve into what Byrne was thinking when he came up with True Stories will meet with disappointment, expecially if they expect to find a solid story. Gazing upon the dreamy view of the world Byrne has created for us, we see life in general from Byrne's point of view. Lucky for us, True Stories involves a world where beauty emerges from almost everything, and, quite frankly, where weird is normal.
In addition to wearing the aforementioned two hats, Byrne also stars in True Stories as the film's narrator, a talkative fellow who invites the viewer along for the ride as he arrives in Virgil, Texas, just in time for the town's 150th Anniversary of "Specialness." In his time spent in Virgil, the narrator introduces us to the more colorful members of a population filled with offbeat personalities: Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a big lug who so desires to experience holy matrimony, he has a "Wife Wanted" sign posted on his front lawn; the Lazy Woman (Swoosie Kurtz), who has so much money, she has no need to get out of bed; the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who makes wild claims such as being the reason why JFK was assassinated; the Culvers (Annie McEnroe and Spalding Gray), a happily-married couple who haven't spoken directly to each other in years; and a preacher (John Ingle) who turns his sermons into huge musical numbers about the country's political status. True Stories isn't about anything in particular, just these people, the oddball lives they lead, and seeing it all through the eyes of a tour guide who drives a red convertible and wears snappy cowboy outfits.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "movie" as "a connected cinematic narrative represented in this form." True Stories fits this definition to a tee. It may not have a solid storyline to hold itself up during slower moments, but as movies are images strung together to create a story, David Byrne follows directions with his cinematic directorial debut. He and co-screenwriters Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky bring the people of Virgil to life by tapping into those little quirks everyone has. Not all characters are as goofy or outlandish as those previously mentioned. In between the unusual fashion shows and oddly-staged dinners, Byrne simply shows us something small, like a security guard who starts singing opera on an abandoned stage, or a man in an office who dances for a bit. These scenes display Byrne's message of stopping to pay attention to the little things in life, to appreciate the more interesting parts about one another.
True Stories is a celebration of what makes us different -- with the bright screenplay and Byrne's direction working hand in hand to give viewers as clear a picture of Virgil as possible. Ed Lachman's cinematography is lovely to behold, and Byrne always seems to have a handle on his characters, never allowing them to become too outrageous or unrealistic (even the servant who, in his spare time, casts love spells for whoever is willing to pay).
Guiding the audience through Virgil as it gears up for its celebration, Byrne projects the guise of a man endlessly fascinated by what he sees. The narrator's innocence blends in with the colorful characters surrounding him. Goodman was born to play the part of Louis Fyne. Just think of the human counterpart of Sully from Monsters, Inc., and you have Louis, an average guy who maintains "a consistent panda bear shape" and would like nothing more than to share his life with a wife.
Goodman and Byrne have most of the time on camera, but even the less touched-upon citizens of Virgil make their mark. Kurtz, as the lazy woman, McEnroe and Gray as the Culvers, and Tito Larriva as a factory worker who sings the tune "Radio Head" at the climactic talent show, all leave lasting impressions. And almost always present is some form of music or another, from McEnroe singing "Dream Operator" at the fashion show, a lip-synching contest to the Talking Heads's "Wild Wild Life" (which features all four band members in cameos), and the Heads's "City of Dreams" taking us out through the final credits, another effective medium through which Byrne gets his messages to the viewers (not to mention keeping the film lively for the full 90 minutes).
Will you enjoy True Stories? It all depends on how willing you are to forgive the film's emphasis upon the characters and their quirks alone. There are those who proclaim Byrne's film as pretentious and boring; others, myself included, see it as a warm picture with a little something for everyone.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG.")
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.