Gwen Verdon

Walking Across Egypt

Walking Across Egypt

Things don’t look good for elderly widow Mattie Rigsbee (Ellen Burstyn). She gets wedged into her rocking chair and can’t come undone until the dogcatcher Lamar (Mark Hamill) drops in three hours later. That’s when she learns that his orphaned nephew Wesley (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is holed up in a nearby juvenile detention center for stealing a car. Prompted by a Sunday sermon to help the least of her brethren, Mattie decides to visit Wesley, bringing him a slice of her famous pound cake and tea.

That, folks, is how beautiful friendships begin, though Mattie’s two children think otherwise. They’ve learned to get on without their mother. Elaine (Gail O’Grady) suggests with syrupy tones that Mattie look into a retirement community, an idea Robert (Judge Reinhold) rejects. But neither are keen on her new acquaintance, who sneaks out of confinement and sweet talks his way into staying over. Mattie’s neighbors (Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell) are also convinced she’s set herself up for murder.

Of course everyone’s overreacting because the troubled youth in question is played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, whose grittiest role to date is Simba in The Lion King. How threatening can the witty middle kid from Home Improvement be? Not very. Thomas tries like a teacher’s pet to be a menacing delinquent. He slings swear words with abandon and struts around like a slinky. If the part was written for a snuggly Lifetime marathon, he’d get an A. It’s not, but Thomas is skilled in the adorable kid department and pulls enough heartstrings to be effective. (I confess residual teenage affections for JTT.)

The film glides over the reality of juvenile crime and life as a ward of the state by masking those troubles in Southern charm. When Mattie’s quirky neighbors learn that Wesley is staying over for lunch, the couple, concerned for their friend’s safety, park their folding trays and meal in the middle of their front walkway and arm themselves with giant hunting binoculars and a rifle. Wesley’s greatest transgression though is failing to pray before stuffing his face with macaroni salad. A harsher depiction of his experiences in detention or with his family would have made his relationship with Mattie more rewarding to watch, but the filmmakers weren’t really aiming for American History X. No one is ever in danger, even when they seem to be in danger, and that allows Mattie’s story room to breathe.

Burstyn is excellent as an aging woman who is not so much reflecting and regretting her life as she is lonely. Her grasp on reality – that she is not in a position to care for a dog much less a teenager, that her lavender funeral dress beautifully complements the cream lining of the coffin she’s chosen – give her conflicted feelings about Wesley an honesty and depth not always afforded to older characters. It’s a movie about two people who need and find each other, but this is really Burstyn’s show.

Released: 1999
Prod: Lance Tendler, Stan Tendler
Dir: Arthur Allan Seidenman
Writer: Paul Tamasy
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Mark Hamill, Gail O’Grady, Judge Reinhold, Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell, Pat Corley, Edward Hermann, Dana Ivey
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014