Two young male prostitutes (Phoenix and Reeves) join forces with a Falstaff/Fagin figure and his band of urchins and engage in quasi-Shakesperian shenanigans, complete with allusions to Henry IV Parts One and Two.
Hailed as one of the most talented independent filmmakers after 1989's Drugstore Cowboy, it is hardly surprising that Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho was one of the more keenly awaited arthouse movies of recent years. It is, perhaps, even less surprising that this tale of friendship, loneliness and shattered dreams is something of a major disappointment.
Falling prey to the seemingly incurable disease of first-time writer-directoritis, Van Sant here takes up the quill with considerably less aplomb than he takes up his camera, with the boldest and certainly most ill-advised of his flights of fancy being a lengthy mid-section in which two young male prostitutes (Phoenix and Reeves) join forces with a Falstaff/Fagin figure and his band of urchins and engage in quasi-Shakesperian shenanigans, complete with allusions to Henry IV Parts One and Two. With a more accomplished script and an actor of rather more technical prowess than Reeves (nabbing the Prince Hal role), this may just have worked. Here, it is just squirmingly embarrassing stuff.
Woven around all of this is the tale of Mike Waters (the excellent Phoenix), an unloved lad selling sexual favours in the Pacific North West, and his best mate, the in-actuality heterosexual and extremely wealthy Scott Favor (Reeves). Footloose and miserable as hell, the duo travel from Idaho to Seattle to Portland to Italy in search of Waters' mother, with Van Sant bravely attempting many a directorial flourish - some, like the still-life tableaux sex-scenes, falling into the file marked Affectation, and others, like the weaving of home movie footage with superb cinematography, succeeding to quite startling effect.
Despite the often ludicrous situations in which he is required to emote, Phoenix really is frighteningly convincing as the screwed-up hustler looking for direction and the love of the self-seeking Reeves, and there are several spot-on supporting roles, notably James Russo as his violent father and William Richert as the ubiquitous Falstaffian figure. Van Sant's deftness of touch and superb visual style, so evident in Drugstore Cowboy, is still there, too, the final shot being truly magical and really quite moving in its own sumptuous way.
What My Own Private Idaho really needs, however, is a particularly hard-nosed script editor and a big pair of scissors through all the speeded-up fluffy clouds with which Gus Van Sant now seems so strangely obsessed.