** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Ron Shelton

With Paul Newman, Lolita Davidovich, Jerry Hardin, and Gailard Sartain.

“Dirt’s a funny thing,” the Boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s under water, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”

–Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

The “Boss” so busy seeing infinity in a bit of dirt is a thinly fictionalized version of the legendary Louisiana politician Huey P. Long, who was viewed by many Americans as a populist savior and by many others as a potential dictator. The lead male character in writer-director Ron Shelton’s latest film is Huey’s younger brother Earl K. Long, who carried on Huey’s legacy after he was assassinated in 1935. Three times governor of Louisiana, Earl Long was a colorful rompin’, stompin’, raspy-throated politician who tended, like Huey, to revel in rather than bemoan the tug-of-war within him between compassion and ambition, principles and political survival. This personal struggle erupted in startling ways in his public addresses; he would, for instance, use old ugly terms to promote progressive policies, as when he berated state legislators, saying that sooner or later “you got to recognize niggers is human beings.” Governor Earl also carried on Huey’s populist programs, although he was never shy about claiming the kudos. “The three best friends the poor people have ever had,” he bellowed at campaign stops, “are Jesus Christ, Sears Roebuck, and Earl K. Long.” Little wonder Shelton was captivated: Earl Long is a political figure as much worth exploring as a Richard III or a Richard Nixon.

Except Shelton never manages to peel away anything more than Long’s boxer shorts. What we get instead of a shrewdly conducted personality probe is a torrent of Long’s wry charm and proud redneck witticisms–as chronicled by his notorious lover, Bourbon Street stripteaser Blaze Starr. In Blaze these not-so-very-strange bedfellows–Blaze is young; Long is 65 years old and married–make hilarious love and disastrous politics (so far as Long’s career is concerned, although their link is winked at until Long challenges some racist legislation). As he did in Bull Durham, Shelton unites a quirky love story, partly narrated by a free-spirited woman, with an archly told tale of an American national pastime, politics. Shelton marshals very funny dialogue, crisp camera work (Haskell Wexler), brisk pacing, a keen attentiveness to local “color” (from odd verbal expressions to the dietary habit of swigging cola and munching peanuts at the same time), and a mostly lighthearted, affectionate tone to produce a frothy cinematic treat–a “picaresque melodrama,” as he aptly dubs it. There is no detectable trace of any aspiration to make Blaze a grand statement, as Color Purple and Mississippi Burning were intended to do.

Blaze opens in 1950 in the tidy interior of a shack in rural West Virginia, where a teenage girl (Lolita Davidovich) bids her mother farewell and sets off for the big city with her mama’s injunction to guide her: “Never trust a man who says “Trust me.”‘ As a waitress, she trusts a fast-talking city slicker (Robert Wuhl) long enough to be enticed into performing a meticulous striptease at a servicemen’s hangout: “Take it off,” the soldiers and sailors bray, until she ceases singing and starts disrobing.

Cut to New Orleans nine years later. Governor Earl Long (a spry Paul Newman) happily prowls the French Quarter, where he beholds the well-honed routine of star stripper Blaze. He is smitten, or something similar, acclaiming her act a “powerful expression of basic human needs.” Anyway, he says, he always craved “a high-minded, independent woman with big hooters,” and commences the ribald chase of the formidable (but interested) Blaze. He pauses that first evening only long enough to chew a chunk of ear off an ornery congressman. The streets are much safer when the Louisiana legislature is in session.

Wooing Blaze, Long introduces her at a dinner party to “my yes-men.” Shelton deploys his deft and daffy comic touch effectively throughout the script, hitting something of a crescendo in Long’s ranting and panting bedroom monologue when he suffers an “equipment failure” at the very moment he and Blaze are to consummate matters. The script snaps, crackles, and pops with laughs.

Even the most cunning or cruel opponents can be disarmed with a bit of native southern ingenuity, or so it seems. During a hospital tour Long, caught between blacks who want jobs and whites who want to keep segregation, improvises a clever if temporary solution. His wits don’t fail even when he’s suddenly tossed into a mental institution on a phony diagnosis. The ingenuously self-inflicted campaign slogan Long used upon release was “Vote for Long: I Ain’t Crazy.”

The trouble is, so far as we can tell, Long might be slightly “tetched.” Why else would he make a futile grandstand play in the legislature when he opposes some repugnant legislation? Why would so seasoned a southern politician be so foolish? No clue. Why is Long so suddenly and easily deposed? It just happens, that’s all. If the governor isn’t “Boss,” who is? These nagging queries and many more arise despite the humorous treatment of his political battles.

Perhaps a credible account of Earl Long’s downfall is a tad too much to ask for. Shelton, after all, takes Blaze’s perspective on events, political and romantic. (At least we can credit Shelton for giving us a glimpse of blacks actively pressing Long for their rights, unlike the passivity shown in Mississippi Burning.) But we are no wiser as to why a hardy gent so well versed in the fine art of dealing in and slinging dirt bit the dust so abruptly.