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A grossly amusing "Wellville'

Published Oct. 8, 2005

A three-ring circus of hammy performances can't overshadow the real star of Alan Parker's madcap, and maddening farce, The Road to Wellville. Even the great Anthony Hopkins' buck-toothed bluster as turn-of-the-century health guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg pales next to the devious dietary machinations of "The San" _ short for the Battle Creek Sanitarium where Kellogg fashioned some of the oddest health therapies this side of Rolfing.

It's a deviously dehumanizing place; lush and stately at first appearance, then turning dark and cultish as Parker relishes each biological gross-out joke he could glean from T.C. Boyle's 1992 novel. Banners with bits of Kellogg's odd manifesto of health dot the decor. Overweight patients bend, stretch and sing gastronomical jingles in unison.

Most glorious, there is the endless machinery; Kellogg's malevolent-looking inventions that slap, shock, jiggle and flush away any impurities left from a life of red meat, booze and sex. Unlike everything else that's bad for us, the San isn't illegal, immoral or fattening; just fiendishly funny.

Production designer Brian Morris and cinematographer Peter Biziou do a marvelous job of taking viewers of a guided tour of Kellogg's dietary dungeon. It's only when Parker, as screenwriter and director, distracts us with ragged threads of Boyle's subplots that The Road to Wellville betrays itself as a dramatically emaciated film.

Hopkins delivers Kellogg's fanatical urgings with gleeful aplomb; it's a kick to hear today's finest actor boasting of the consistency of his stools or denigrating sex as "the sewer drain of a healthy body." Yet away from his soapbox, Kellogg is strangely muted by a conflict with one of his 40 adopted children, ratty George Kellogg (Dana Carvey, funny in a film for once). Their strained relations lead to a pair of overlong flashbacks and a fiery climax that seems more like Parker's surrender to the dense material than anything else.

Matthew Broderick deserves hazardous duty pay as Will Lightbody, a new arrival at the San who gets lashed, buffeted and humiliated by most of Kellogg's treatments. About the only one we don't witness (thank you) is the 15-gallon yogurt enema. Bridget Fonda plays his wife, Eleanor, who has completely bought into Kellogg's quackery, and sees nothing wrong with spartan diets and a eunuch's life. Their growing disillusionment provides the best scenes in The Road to Wellville, but Parker isn't patient enough to stick with them, or any other focus, for that matter.

Other characters whiz by like an untied balloon; John Cusack, wasted as a breakfast cereal inventor trying to horn in on Kellogg's corn flake empire, Michael Lerner as his conning agent, and Lara Flynn Boyle as a deathly pallored temptation for Will.

Meanwhile, Parker slides from being cleverly tasteless to merely tasteless. How many grotesque laughs can he hope to squeeze from from such subjects as womb-massage therapy, colonic flushes and flatulance? At times, The Road to Wellville is no better than those "family-oriented" movies that think comedy is all groin and gas humor. That's when Kellogg would prescribe a colonic flush for Parker's film.


The Road to Wellville

Director: Alan Parker

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda, Dana Carvey, John Cusack, Lara Flynn Boyle

Screenplay: Alan Parker

Rating: R; nudity, sexual situations, profanity, violence

Running time: 122 min.