Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Accidental Tourist: A Wistful Tale of Emotional Healing

William Hurt as Macon Leary.
Tragedy still looms over Macon and Sarah Leary a year after the sudden, violent death of their 12-year-old son. The introspective Macon (William Hurt), never one to express his feelings easily, has built a cocoon around his pain. With no emotional support, the still grieving Sarah (Kathleen Turner) informs Macon that she is leaving him.

Macon, an author of tourist books, plods though the routine of life until two separate events change his world. First, he meets a force of nature known as Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), a single mother and dog trainer who takes an instant interest in Macon. Around the same time, he has a freak accident in his basement and breaks his leg. During his recovery, he moves into the old family home occupied by his three siblings, whose eccentricities make Macon look normal (they store their groceries in alphabetical order).

Kathleen Turner as Sarah.
Based on Anne Tyler's 1985 award-winning novel, The Accidental Tourist (1988) is a wistful film filled with quiet surprises. It's a decidedly sharp change of pace from the first collaboration between William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and director Lawrence Kasdan. That would be 1981's sexy film noir Body Heat, in which Turner played a murderer and Hurt her easily-deceived lover. Like Body Heat, though, The Accidental Tourist benefits from an excellent cast from top to bottom, a sense of time and place, and an unforgettable music score.

Trying to avoid social interaction.
William Hurt is clearly the star of The Accidental Tourist, for the story centers on how Macon learns to live again. His tourist books are written for travelers who don't want to leave home. They aren't about enjoying new experiences, but rather about how to avoid them (one of his tips is to always carry a book on planes, so you can read and not have to interact with other passengers).

Thus, Hurt has the challenge of playing someone who is "emotionally muffled" (as his wife puts it), but also one who must appeal to the audience. To his credit, Hurt gives a beautiful performance. It reminded me of why he was one of my favorite actors in the 1980s. (It's too bad later roles somewhat sidetracked his career, though he gained attention again this year with a creepy turn in the TV series Goliath).

Geena Davis as Muriel.
While Kathleen Turner is second-billed, Geena Davis has more screen time as the quirky Muriel. It's an energetic, heartfelt performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Equally enjoyable are Ed Begley, Jr. and David Ogden Stiers as Macon's brothers and Amy Wright as his sister. The latter is involved in the film's only major subplot when an unlikely romance develops between her and Macon's publisher (nicely played by Bill Pullman).

Director Lawrence Kasdan lovingly captures the old homes and the low-rent neighborhoods of Baltimore. His feel for the city almost matches that of two of the city's most beloved filmmakers: Barry Levinson and John Waters.

The Accidental Tourist also features one of the finest soundtracks of the 1980s. John Williams' melodic love theme--featuring strings, piano, and french horn--is both poignant and hopeful. It's truly one of the famous composer's finest works. To this day, I'm baffled as to how it could have lost the Oscar for Best Music Score to Dave Grusin's The Milagro Beanfield War.

Macon's scene-stealing Corgi.
On a personal note, I hold fond memories of my first viewing of The Accidental Tourist. Back in the 1980s, when my wife and I were younger, we would sometimes make the 45-minute drive from our home to Louisville, Kentucky, and catch multiple theatrical movies in an afternoon. On one day in 1989, we watched Mississippi Burning, The Accidental Tourist, and Lair of the White Worm--three very different movies, to be sure, but also each memorable in its own way. That day still ranks as our favorite theatrical "triple feature."


  1. "Wistful." The perfect description.

    I am often baffled by the Academy's choices in the music categories. Too often.

    "they store their groceries in alphabetical order" Sounds like something on the autism spectrum, if some of my son's quirks are anything to go by. An interesting quirk.

    "one of his tips is to always carry a book on planes, so you can read and not have to interact with other passengers" I always have a book with me. Doesn't everyone. Or is that one of my quirks. H'm.

  2. I saw this film years ago and had forgotten all about it until your post. Clearly, I need to see this again.

    Caftan Woman (above) nailed it when she said "wistful" is the perfect description. I completely agree.

  3. I missed The Accidental Tourist when it was in release and somehow never caught up to it. I suspect it's Geena Davis, an actress I never warmed to for some reason. Body Heat, on the other hand, I own and have watched time and again. A masterful neo-noir - with an excellent score by John Barry, by the way.

    As for the Academy - its voting habits seem to me a mystery in so many key categories...

  4. Such interesting characters and relationships. I normally don't happen to read books about relationships per se, but this one was captivating and far more interesting in its every-day events and twists as the main character works his way through grief over the loss of his only child. As different a journey for the reader as it is for the main characters.

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