As a novel, A Thousand Acres must be quite captivating. Also quite thick. Author Jane Smiley's story is astoundingly dense and complex, and its translation into film is ambitious, but to the point of exhaustion. The story tracks the lives of three sisters who are about to inherit their father's beloved and prosperous farmland. As the land deal unfolds, so do many layers of secrecy, betrayal and deep-rooted anger that have long flowed through the veins of the family.

Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer star as Ginny and Rose Cook, farm girls who grew up in, and never looked beyond, the world of small-town Iowa. They've married farmers, made homes on the land and resigned themselves to caring for their father (Jason Robards) after their mother's death. The third sister, Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), has escaped to Des Moines to become a lawyer, but still visits regularly. In many ways, the Cook family is self-reliant and tightly-knit. In other ways, it's darkened and divided by long-suppressed dysfunctions.

Early one summer, 'Daddy' announces his hand-down of the property, to be split evenly among the three girls. As expected, the family has difficulty acclimating to its new role as a corporation. Each sister has her own agenda, as do each of their husbands. But Ginny, Rose and Caroline also have hidden issues, vendettas and desires that are somehow brought to the surface by the upheaval. They spend the summer examining their loyalties, exploring infidelities, and dealing with memories of abuse and incest that have come to affect their lives in different ways.

Overall, the whole scenario makes for a lot of complicated relationships: each sister with the other two, each with her own marriage, each with the father, and two with their 'other man' (who happens to be the same person). Confusing? Yeah, it is. In the film's attempt to deal with each dynamic equally, all go equally neglected. While Lange's character, Ginny, narrates the film and serves as its core, it is Pfeiffer's character, Rose, who is painted most completely, and thus is most interesting. Rose has only one ambition in life: to hate her father as successfully as she can. Rose is painfully honest with herself about what she's suffered at the hands of 'Daddy,' and is frustrated with Ginny's refusal to confront the past. Ginny, on the other hand, prefers to be caught up in the day-to-day ritual of farm life, deeply denying what has happened to her and her family. For reasons unexplained, both women turn away from their husbands, into the arms of a childhood friend, Jess (Colin Firth), then end up waging a quiet competition over his affections. Meanwhile, Caroline (also for reasons unexplained) files a lawsuit to take the land away from both her sisters. And, at the center of it all, the father suddenly drifts into a weird state of insanity, babbling incoherently, bouncing back and forth between screaming at his daughters and not even recognizing them. And then there are the husbands' jealousies, the town's uproar, the farm's sudden plummet into debt, and Rose's ongoing battle with breast cancer. All of these events are scrambled in one pan, but not one of them is justified or explained.

Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse displayed a unique talent for juggling multiple storylines in 1995 with her first domestic film, How to Make an American Quilt. With A Thousand Acres, she attempts a more complicated twist on weaving together the threads of many lives and relationships. But Laura Jones' screenplay, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, packs so many characters, conflicts and dynamics into the story that Moorhouse ends up stumbling badly, tackling too much at once. While many scenes are passionately acted and directed, the overall film is disjointed, and lacks a logical progression of time. At any given point in the movie, one feels as if a recent trip to the restroom has just overlapped an important scene that must have explained everything. Only the trip was never made.

--Cynthia Langston