The Sensitive Psycho

AFTER THE TAUT AND TROUBLING "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World feels like a breather. As usual, you can expect solid, no-fuss craftsmanship, but it's best to set your expectations down a notch. Any capsule description of--the plot makes this movie sound a lot more fingernail-biting than it is. Kevin Costner plays escaped convict Butch Haynes, who takes an 8-year-old Jehovah's Witness boy (T. J. Lowther) as a hostage and commits murder along the way before the manhunt led by Texas Ranger Eastwood tracks him down. Surprisingly, the movie has only a glancing, jokey concern with the mechanics of--the manhunt. Eastwood and criminologist Laura Dern (an anachronistically feminist figure for 1963) are the pursuers, but their connection to the story is never more than peripheral. If s Costner and the kid's show, a seriocomic surrogate-father-and-son roadpic that's at its best when it's content to be little more than a charming caper, as the boy dresses up in his Casper the Friendly Ghost Halloween costume and learns the tricks of petty larceny.

Butch Haynes, who, like the boy, had been abandoned by his no-good father, has to be the most sensitive psycho of the year--a pushover for kids, he's the Mrs. Doubtfire of killers. When John Lee Hancock's script tries to get heavy and psychological on us, it just won't wash--the movie is a pipe dream or it's nothing. And during the dragged-out showdown at the end, Butch and the boy finally lose their ongoing battle with bathos. Eastwood obviously intends "A Perfect World" to be a fable about the mysteries of human behavior--the virtues in hardened cons, the vices in the lawabiding, that sort of thing. But Hancock's surface-skimming script is too formulaic for the job. There's enough material here for a crisp 90-minute entertainment. At 2e hours, the leisurely, mildly engaging "A Perfect World" barely sputters across the finish line.