The Road to Wellville

November 23, 2010

One of my favorite places on the ‘net is the Listverse at . Today they had an interesting list about Shocking Historical Beliefs and Practices. One of them was the concept of ‘female hysteria’, and it’s treatment by erotic massage. Anyone offering these treatments now would be up on molestation charges lickity-split, but around the turn of the century they were considered legitimate.

Anyway, this put me in mind of The Road to Wellwille, a 1994 movie. It’s a fact based fiction set in a turn-of-the-century (last) health asylum run by J. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins)–the inventor of Corn Flakes, and the proponent of many a quackish belief.

The movie follows three intertwining plots (Kellogg’s relationship with an estranged adopted son (Dana Carvy) who is anti everything Kellogg is pro, a married couple (Mathew Broderick and Bridget Fonda) seeking health and wellness, and a young man (John Cusak) intent on making his fortune in the burgeoning breakfast cereal industry.

At the Battle Creek Saniterium, Fonda’s character is a proto-groupie for all things ‘cutting edge’ in medical treatment. She embraces with equal enthusiasm vegiterianism, vigorous exercise, mineral baths, mastication thereap (chew that bite 30 times!), and the manual treatment of female hysteria. This involves manual stimulation by a smarmy German doctor, and shall we say she’s a little more enthusiastic about it than she is about other treatments? Her poor husband suffers mightily, but slogs along with treatments that border on torture, for the sake of his wife. The scene where he finally has enough are hilarious and cathartic. It turns out that the wife who has guilted him into this purgatory is responsible for his condition. She secretly fed him a ‘calming medicine’ to prevent him from going out and drinking. Turns out the drug was an opiate, so he became alcoholic AND addicted.

Dana Carvy is wonderfully pervy and slimy as the prodigal-but-not-comin’-back-to-the-fold son. He surprises Fonda in a bathing treatment. You’ve heard of stripping someone with your eyes? That woman should be down to bones and nerves by the time Dana has managed to rinse the first few layers of filth off with a shower.

Cusak’s character is a sad sack, but my God–you keep wanting to yell at him to grow a sense of survival as the scam sharks circle round.

I loved this movie because I like irony, satire, and well done period pieces. I love pouring over the details of costume and set dressing. The acting is good (purposely overdone in some cases, but these are more characatures than characters). Hopkins is always fun to watch. Here he’s playing a man who’s self-assurance long ago fell over into ‘I’m always right, anyone else who disagrees is wrong or mad’ territory.

Oh, and look for the scene where Catheryn Manheim (as another health groupie) bicycles herself to a ‘hysterical paroxym’.

The movie was from a book of the same name, so I’ll recommend both. And it might be fun to Google Kellogg to look up his crackpot theories.