The Forties, Regurgitated 

Red Betsy is a family film -- if you want to bore your family.

Aging cultural conservatives who long for a return of the Hays Code to stem the moral depravity in their motion picture entertainment will find much to enjoy in Red Betsy, the feature directorial debut of one Chris Boebel. Boebel adapted the movie from one of his father's short stories that was clearly based in turn upon dad's relationship with his pater. It's set in the "good ol' days" (1941 through 1951), espouses libertarian principles and respect for family, and contains a rather didactic and uncomfortably timely speech about marriage promoting the stability of the family. When the married couple finally have sex, they do it fully clothed and in the dark.

The Red Betsy of the title initially refers to an airplane that grumpy patriarch Emmet Rounds (Leo Burmester) has made from scratch with his son Dale (Brent Crawford). The plane flies, and becomes the talk of their small Wisconsin town. Years later, with the plane long since grounded, Emmet will paint his house red and dub that the Red Betsy in a fit of nostalgia.

Dale is about to marry Winifred (The Spitfire Grill's Alison Elliott), but Emmet is none too happy with that decision, fearing that Winifred's newfangled ways might encourage Dale to leave town and go to college. Before that move can occur, however, Emmet's wife drops dead right as the radio announces that Pearl Harbor has been attacked. Dale postpones college to join the Air Force, promising his wife that he'll be back in a year, will make some money to buy a house, and what could possibly go wrong? Cut immediately to a few weeks later, and he's dead. Oops.

You'd figure that from here on out, the crux of the story would be the mismatched young lady and crusty grump gradually learning to care about one another, but that isn't quite what happens. Rather than watching Emmet warm to Winifred, we skip ahead a few years, and they seem entirely cordial. Later, however, a hokey manufactured crisis comes up that drives a wedge between them again, turning Emmet into a recluse who shuts out all company and modernization from his Red Betsy compound. If you're familiar with Oscar Wilde's children's book The Selfish Giant, you'll have a good idea what happens after that (the film itself goes for a more obvious and slightly less appropriate literary analogy -- to Dickens' A Christmas Carol).

Part of the movie's problem is that, while the story is undoubtedly touching and resonant for Boebel, his father, and his father's father, it looks to the casual viewer a whole lot like ordinary people doing mundane stuff, which is hardly the height of drama. A bigger problem is the clunky storytelling. The minute Emmet's wife makes a highly telegraphed comment about suddenly being out of breath, we know her sudden death is inevitable and imminent.

As for the dialogue, it rings untrue and often plays like blatant exposition for the benefit of those who don't know what life was like in the '40s. At the first Rounds family dinner we're privy to, the conversation deals solely with the fact that indoor plumbing and electricity are going to be realities soon. Later, the Pearl Harbor newscast can be more or less paraphrased thusly: "Japanese planes have attacked Pearl Harbor. We know they' re Japanese because they had the Japanese flag on them. And they've attacked Pearl Harbor. Yes, those Japanese certainly have attacked. With planes. Planes were sighted over Pearl Harbor, and then they attacked."

Later references to the installation of electricity and the concept of eminent domain also play inorganically; it's almost as if Boebel wants his film to be used as a teaching tool in classrooms. When Chad Lowe shows up as the government's electricity guy, there are brief hints of a potential romance between him and Winifred, but no: That might actually be dramatic.

Burmester is the closest thing to a saving grace the movie has -- a regular presence in John Sayles films, he brings humanity to a character who initially comes off as a caricature. When his Emmet goes into a total hermit phase, it would be easy to play him off as a Michigan militia-type crank, as his vehement self-sufficiency, antisocial attitude and refusal to pay bills render him quite similar to the contemporary caricature of a backwoods NRA member. Still, even when utterly unlikable, Burmester doesn't let you lose sight of the very real emotions motivating his character.

So, to sum up: If you have kids, you can feel safe taking them to this movie, but you can also be assured that they'll be utterly bored. The only way youngsters might appreciate the film is if it is in fact picked up by teachers (hey, better this than the John Stossel videos currently on offer to our educators) and shown during class in lieu of note-taking.


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