Having been exposed to the image countless times during my years as a video-store drone, since it was replicated on the movie’s VHS sleeve, the poster shot for Goin’ South has always irked me. At first glance, it’s a striking shot of star Jack Nicholson smiling wickedly while his face is framed by a noose. Upon close inspection, however, it’s clear that Nicholson is holding the noose in place to achieve the effect. The intended illusion is thus made and dispelled simultaneously. And so it goes for the movie itself, because throughout Goin’ South, Nicholson’s techniques as actor and director are so apparent that the movie feels laborious when it should feel effortless. After all, Goin’ South is supposed to be a comedy—and a romantic comedy, no less.
Set in Texas during the Wild West era, the picture stars Nicholson as Henry Moon, an excitable but not particularly bright outlaw. Captured by lawmen including Sheriff Kyle (Richard Bradford) and Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), Moon is strung up for hanging. However, thanks to an arcane law allowing unmarried women to save condemned men by agreeing to marry them, young landowner Julie Tate (Mary Steenbugen) becomes Moon’s bride. Having inherited a ranch from her father, she needs a man and likes the idea of being able to use Moon for a slave since he owes her his life.
Even though it’s rather convoluted, this premise could easily have generated an opposites-attract farce. Unfortunately, nearly every element in Goin’ South misses the mark. The screenplay meanders through dull and repetitive scenes. Supporting characters lack dimension. Plot twists emerge arbitrarily as opposed to organically. Nicholson’s direction is fuzzy, so scenes lack internal rhythm and the tone of the piece wobbles between broad comedy and subtle satire. Worst of all, the performances are terribly out of sync with each other. Steenburgen, appearing in her first movie, mostly communicates gentle nuances, while Nicholson goes way, way over the top.
In fact, it’s probably fair to describe the actor’s work in Goin’ South as some of the worst acting in his career. Whether he’s frowning with an open mouth to imply stupidity or widening his eyes to indicate lunacy, Nicholson is silly and tiresome in nearly every scene; virtually the only clever touch he employs is speaking at various intervals with a phlegmatic knot in his voice, suggesting a character for whom language does not come easily. And to say the leads lack chemistry is a huge understatement. It’s also irritating to see two potent comic actors—John Belushi (another actor making his big-screen debut in Goin’ South) and Danny DeVito—relegated to insignificant supporting roles. Really the only member of the Goin’ South gang whose work is consistently praiseworthy is cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who paints most scenes with an appealing golden glow.
Goin’ South: FUNKY