Whole Wide World, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the course of his short, stormy life, Depression era writer Robert E. Howard created more than two dozen pulp heroes, and wrote hundreds of short stories. His best-known creation, Conan the Barbarian, became so popular during the 1970s and '80s that he spawned comic books, more than fifty original novels (far outstripping Howard's original output), and two motion pictures (Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). It's said that the best way to know an author is to read his writing, and, as Dan Ireland's The Whole Wide World shows, Howard was a man who gave his all to his work.

During Conan's resurgence in the 1970s, a lot of things -- many of them profoundly uncomplimentary -- were written and said about the author, who had died some forty years earlier from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Novalyne Price Ellis, a woman who had enjoyed a special relationship with Howard, decided to set the record straight by revealing "the real Bob Howard." The result was One Who Walked Alone, which was published in 1985. This memoir became the basis of The Whole Wide World, which presents a portrait of Howard as seen through the eyes of a woman who loved him, but would never in return be loved in the same way.

The film opens during 1933 in Brownwood, Texas, with the meeting of Novalyne (Renee Zellweger), a would-be author, and Robert (Vincent D'Onofrio), "the best pulp writer in the whole wide world." The two hit it off almost immediately, despite the difference in their life-views. Over the course of the next three years, their relationship ebbs and flows, with Novalyne falling for Robert in a way that is never reciprocated. It's clear that he cares for her, but he is emotionally unable to commit to a relationship. In his own words: "The road I walk, I walk alone."

Although The Whole Wide World is primarily a study of the characters and their romantic liaison, Michael Scott Myers' script finds time to explore other fascinating issues, including the philosophy of writing and the power of imagination. Robert and Novalyne spend hours on end debating their craft and the dubious virtues of the Conan stories. He explains to her that "excitement's my specialty... excitement and adventure." When she relates the plot of one of her recent stories, he breaks out laughing.

The Whole Wide World contains some wonderfully tender moments, including one where Robert and Novalyne hold hands with a glorious, golden sunset in the background. There are also some startling sequences that evoke the state of Robert's mind. In one scene, the camera zooms in on his eyes as he speaks passionately about who Conan is. As his speech becomes more animated, we can hear the distant clang of clashing swords. Ireland uses such innovative audio tricks to open the window to Robert's mental state a little wider. And, while we never fully comprehend the complex workings of the author's mind, we understand that his extreme devotion to his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) lies at the core of his inability to resolve his feelings for Novalyne.

This film would not be as stirring, nor would the love story be as poignant, if not for the dynamic portrayals of the two main actors. Vincent D'Onofrio is commanding as Robert, presenting him as a "morose, ungainly misfit among men" whose shy, gentle nature is occasionally ripped apart by brief, psychotic episodes. Renee Zellweger, who has become a hot prospect after her eye-opening turn in Jerry Maguire, here proves that the talent displayed opposite Tom Cruise was no fluke. Novalyne, not unlike Maguire's Dorothy, is a strong, independent woman -- a spitfire with a vulnerable side. And, considering the strength of her performance, you'd never guess that the role was developed with Olivia D'Abo in mind. (D'Abo was five months pregnant when The Whole Wide World went into production, and, as a result, was unable to appear.)

There's nothing earthshaking about The Whole Wide World, a film that is, by the director's own admission, very small. Nevertheless, it successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do, and the result is affecting and involving. So, while it may be true that the best way to get into the mind of Robert E. Howard is to read his stories, seeing The Whole Wide World will give you an appreciation of a side of him that was never revealed in any Conan yarn.

Whole Wide World, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1