By Ralph Novak
June 19, 1989 12:00 PM

Keith Carradine, Sally Kirkland

It’s precious and a half—you can practically hear everyone connected with the movie congratulating one another on what rascals they are. Many of the self-indulgers, however, are talented, so things never get boring even when they’re irksome.

Carradine, Kirkland and singer Tom Waits are modern-day cheap crooks who smuggle emeralds, sewn into a horse’s belly, into the U.S. Carradine runs off with the horse, though, leaving his co-conspirators to chase him. Kirkland, as a fleshy Oklahoma devoted to food and sex, wears a series of outfits that threaten to creep up from the bottom, fall down from the top and meet in the middle. Waits is a killer with a taste for figs and outbursts of violence. Carradine mainly reacts, like Curly, the Three Stooges member who existed to be gouged and conked.

Writing credits go to those sweethearts of pop lit, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. The script has an inside-joke feel, and when the camera shows a movie marquee, it’s advertising Rancho Deluxe. McGuane wrote that film, which starred Jeff Bridges, who does a bit in Cold Feet.

The dialogue changes in idiom from scene to scene (and there are lots of clippy scenelets). At one point Kirkland says dreamily to Waits, “I know you, and you just want to spread your wings and you want to kill something.” At another, she babbles in Damon Runyon-esque style, “I believe he must pass away in a rather cruel fashion.” Waits often seems to be improvising. Discussing Little Red Riding Hood with Carradine’s young daughter, he says, “The wolf isn’t bad; he’s just unlucky.”

Director Robert Dornhelm, who did the similarly odd Echo Park, elicits normal acting from Bill (The Accidental Tourist) Pullman and Kathleen (Winner Takes All) York as Carradine’s brother and sister-in-law, who run a Montana ranch where he takes refuge. They keep the film from sprouting wings and feathers and popping out of the door of a clock.

Mostly, though, this film is about $400 lizard-skin boots, vats where horses are boiled for dog food and obvious symbolism—such as a horse named Infidel in a movie obsessed with trust. Mr. Wretched Excess, Rip Torn, even appears as a sheriff, thus blessing the film’s subtext: Either nothing is gratuitous or everything is gratuitous, so why worry.