Trouble in paradise

Big Eden's small-town love story seems too good to be true

Thomas Bezucha's portrayal of small-town tolerance in Big Eden brings to mind Robert Kennedy's famous quote: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'

In Bezucha's film, the North Montana town of Big Eden proves so open-minded and gay-positive as to make San Francisco seem like a bastion of bigotry. Like a 21st-century Mayberry, Big Eden and the film of the same name have an ingratiating sweetness that's hard to resist. But its cheery attitude softens some of the harder, more realistic edges not only in gay-straight relations, but in its own characters.

Shortly before a major gallery opening, New York painter Henry Hart (Ayre Gross) receives a call that his grandfather Sam (George Coe) has been hospitalized. Henry rushes home to care for the man who raised him despite the frustrations of his brittle representative (Veanne Cox, whose performance suggests a "Will & Grace role). The Manhattan architecture of the opening credits contrasts sharply with the subsequent wide-open spaces of Montana captured in helicopter shots.

Henry stays indefinitely to care for crotchety, wheelchair-bound Sam, but he has another agenda lingering in Big Eden: the recent return of Dean (Tim McKay), his high school friend and secret love, who's just divorced and moved back home with his two rambunctious boys. We wonder if the two had a more intimate high school history than simply Henry's unrequited friendship — but the film's strangely reserved on that subject.

A third point develops in the romantic triangle: general store proprietor Pike (Eric Schweig), a taciturn Native American who's very fond of Sam and delivers meals cooked by a busybody widow (Nan Martin). In the script's cleverest touch, Pike pities Henry and Sam having casseroles foisted upon them, and teaches himself how to cook. But in a twist akin to Cyrano de Bergerac, Pike lets the widow take credit for his cooking.

It's a little annoying that Henry and Sam's last name is "Hart, given that Henry is lovelorn and Sam has cardiovascular trouble. The way to Big Eden's own heart is through its stomach, especially in its lovingly photographed cooking scenes, and the way food provides sustenance, succor and pretexts for socializing. A few montages find Pike preparing lovely meals of fresh-caught trout and the like, intercut with Henry painting or the guys building Sam a wheelchair ramp. The soundtrack twangs with comfy C&W tunes like "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes, upbeat music that infects the film's rose-colored treatment of small-town life.

Big Eden's matchmaking widow initially invites Henry to her place, which she's filled with eligible women. When she discovers he's gay, she has him over again, this time filling her house with handsome "bachelors, a few crooning "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.

Even more supportive are the roughnecked, flannel-and-cowboy-hat-wearing guys wasting their time hanging out at the general store. They do whatever they can to fix up Pike with Henry. Elsewhere in the film, men dance closely at picnics without raising eyebrows. And if they never admit they're gay, it's only because they choose to rein in their true feelings. It's all reminiscent of the quirky Alaskan village in "Northern Exposure, but without so much as a single prejudiced character questioning his beliefs.

George Coe and O'Neal Compton, the ringleader of the Pike's general store buddies, still prove a pair of lovable lugs, the one a crotchety sage, the other a drawling teddy bear. Schweig's Pike is a compelling and sympathetic character despite his pathological shyness, a condition that's never quite accounted for.

Dean, on the other hand, is underwritten, ultimately proving little more than a strapping wrangler of his sons and the object of Henry's affection. You wonder if he's deeply closeted, an unconscious flirt or has something else going on. But the film never delves into what makes him tick. Gross' Henry isn't especially easy to like, proving aloof in the New York scenes and annoyingly passive through much of the film. When he finishes a painting — a star field that cries out for a unicorn — you wonder if he's an artist with work hanging in the Whitney.

In his first stab at either writing or directing, Bezucha, a former vice president at Ralph Lauren, either has strong instincts, lots of beginner's luck, good back-up from his cast and crew, or a little of all three. It's a shame the film doesn't make better use of Louise Fletcher, and that it stoops to a running-for-the-airport cliche at the conclusion. But it's just as well that it doesn't bother with the big-city-vs.-small-town dynamic, with the best scene devoted to Pike's telling of the legend of a constellation's origin.

Given that it is a gay romance in a place called Big Eden, there's probably an "Adam and Steve joke in there someplace. And while it's better that Big Eden doesn't go there, it's disappointing that it doesn't go all of the places it needs to.