Alan Parker's The Road to Wellville is a prettily detailed movie about the prettily detailed fascination with bodily functions that marked turn-of-the-century America -- or, at least, that part of America with enough money and free time to pursue medical obsessions. Based on T. Coraghessan Boyle's novel, which in turn was based on the true story of the nation's first full-fledged foray into health foods and quack cures, The Road to Wellville focuses on life at the "San": Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's (he of corn flake fame) Battle Creek Sanitarium.
The true story of the San is one of treachery, industrial espionage, bad blood and cereal wars that spans decades. That was more or less private. Publicly, the San boasted a clientele the Betty Ford Clinic would envy. Rockefellers, Roosevelts and their ilk flocked to Michigan for sinusoidal baths, hydriatic percussion and yogurt enemas. They paid well for such tortures to cure "peristaltic woes" through "biological living."
The good doctor Kellogg, a Bellvue-trained M.D., was a born fanatic. Speechifying like the true believer he was, Kellogg ran his show with flair -- and at great profit. It was a combination that drew disciples of health and hucksterism, and Wellville begins with strangers on a train steaming toward Michigan that represent both sides of that coin. The worried well are Will and Eleanor Lightbody (Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda); the man with opportunity on his mind is cereal-magnate-in-training Charles Ossining (John Cusack).
Mrs. Lightbody, a self-confessed "Battle Freak," sparks a conversation with Ossining by attacking his blue-point oysters. Scavengers of the ocean swimming in their own urine, she warns him, and Ossining, listening politely, continues to enjoy his piss-paddling bivalves. Will Lightbody, his diet limited to toast, is most affected by his wife's ranting, and wretches violently.
This opening scene suggests that Wellville looks upon the American craze for cures with a jaundiced eye. Nothing that follows changes that notion, though the jaundiced eye does have a tendency to wander.
Most of that wandering is between the Lightbodys and Ossining who, arriving in Battle Creek, part to go their particular ways. The young entrepreneur strides off to make his fortune with Per-fo breakfast cereal; the Lightbodys engage a cab for the bracing drive to the San. There, after a wrenching encounter with the good Doctor Kellogg, who jerks poor Will's tongue from his mouth, glares at his tonsils and declares the new San patient seriously ill, the Lightbodys are separated. Sex is not part of the cure here, though sex is rarely far from the residents' minds. Will is rolled away from his wife by fetching Nurse Graves (Traci Lind) and in the corridors they pass Miss Muntz (Lara Flynn Boyle), a victim of "green disease" whose red-rimmed eyes, set deep in her verdant pallor, follow Will hungrily.
Meanwhile, Eleanor repairs to a milk bath, where she's startled by, yet politely engages
n conversation with, George Kellogg (Dana Carvey), the great doctor's sewer-troll son. He's crashed the San to hit up the old man for money and, not incidentally, look at the nude ladies. There are alarms, pandemonium and then the old man pays his son to leave.
Back in town, things are not going well for Ossining. His partner hasn't sent a cab to carry him to a fine hotel. Instead, an urchin arrives to lead Ossining into the slum. His jaunty walk ends with a dreadful, soaking slog through rain and muck. That's his bath.
When morning dawns bright, we know exactly what's ahead: mishaps, misunderstandings and a few brief moments of minor enlightenment. But to what end?
The Road To Wellville goes two ways. Should we feel for the characters? Or are their antics merely slapstick? This historical comedy is almost a waste of talent. Happily, two British warhorses save the day. John Neville turns in a top-drawer performance as Will's only friend, the proper Endymion Hart-Jones. Even when orgasmic in an electrified bath he restricts himself to polite requests for more amperes. And instead of rude exclamations, he expresses his release by intoning "Nibble, nibble, nibble!"
Neville's fellow limy, Anthony Hopkins, is magnificent as the grandiose Doctor Kellogg. He tends to outfits of the purest white and teeth that appear borrowed from Bugs Bunny (teeth reportedly of Hopkins' own design). Hopkins is always making pompous pronouncements citing the evils of sex and boasting about other bodily functions. "An erection is a flagpole on our grave," he lectures one guest. "My stools, sir, are gigantic and have no more odor than a hot biscuit," he notes later.
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But for all Neville's and Hopkins' inventiveness, Wellville ultimately suffers from a lack of imagination. Even if some of the more humorous machines the guests at the San submit to were created out of Rube Goldberg whole cloth, the movie's best bits owe their inspiration to real history. Wellville covers both the most obvious comic elements of the San's story and some of the less tasty gossip that came out of Battle Creek. What it doesn't do is find a way to bring these elements successfully together.
But like a mud bath, while it may not live up to its claims, it's fun and not without its uses. This well-wrought fluff would make a great first-date movie. Repressed sexuality is a constant theme and the salacious parts are non-threatening. Depending on the date, you could either leave the theater singing (as do the San's diners) "chew, chew, chew / good food is good for you," or exit intoning, "Nibble, nibble, nibble!"
The Road to Wellville.
Directed by Alan Parker. With Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, Matthew Broderick and John Cusack.