The time is the early 1900s, and Dr John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins) is the head of the one of the country's most popular sanitariums at Battle Creek. A young married couple, Eleanor (Bridget Fonda) and William Lightbody (Matthew Broderick) are travelling there by train at Eleanor's insistence, as she has attended the place before and found it most beneficial, but not so beneficial that she doesn't have to go back and take her husband with her. In the dining carriage, where Will asks for dry toast and a glass of water on account of his poor stomach, they meet Charles Ossining (John Cusack) who tells them he is visiting the town for a new business opportunity, but when Eleanor points out that the oysters he is eating swim in their own urine, Will is disgusted enough to throw up in another diner's lap. Yes, he needs help with his constitution all right, but is the Battle Creek Sanatarium all it's cracked up to be?
Director Alan Parker adapted T. Coraghessan Boyle's novel with a sure hand, but failed to bring it much success for despite the farcical nature of the story, there are few laugh out loud moments to be enjoyed (star Broderick thought it was especially poor). Although set at the turn of the nineteenth century, the film is really a lightly disguised attack on the fashions and fads of the health crusades of the nineteen-nineties, with Dr Kellogg's elaborate diets and contraptions for sustaining a well balanced lifestyle obviously standing in for something more contemporary. But that's not the only concern of the project, as the narrative is fairly straining at the seams with blatant allusions to father and son conflicts, sexual hang ups and the pitfalls of capitalism, all played out against the quaint background of the day.
When Will and Eleanor arrive, Eleanor is whisked away by a doctor she knows from previous visits and Will is wheelchaired away at Dr Kellogg's insistence to his own personal room as sexual encounters are frowned upon here - pretty unfortunate as the undernourished Will keeps hallucinating the women around him - Nurse Graves (Traci Lind), patient Miss Muntz (Lara Flynn Boyle) - in a state of undress. He is swiftly given a bath and an enema to calm him down, but his frustrations continue. Meanwhile, Charles meets his associate, Goodloe Bender (Michael Lerner), who we suspect (rightly) is a con artist but Charles is so keen to see their new cornflake business as a rival to Kellogg's he ignores his misgivings. And when the doctor's adopted, misfit son George (Dana Carvey) joins them, they have the excuse to use the Kellogg name on their packaging.
There's a serious undercurrent, too, which sends the playful tone lurching into sentimentality as when we learn that George was an orphan who just wants to be loved, or Will and Eleanor have recently lost their baby which has triggered the health obsession of Eleanor. Fortunately there's not too much of this, and Will finds himself the object of lust from both Nurse Graves and the overly pale Miss Muntz, who is suffering from a "green sickness". Then patients begin to die off thanks to the treatments, but little is developed in this area; more black comedy might have helped. And for all the talk of bodily functions, we see hardly any of them - perhaps thankfully - so when George starts throwing shit around it's in cornflake boxes. The Road to Wellville is nicely acted, with Hopkins' rabbit-toothed Kellogg both cartoonish and well observed, but there's a sense of petulance and impatience informing the view of its subject, not least when George wreaks havoc for the ending. Still, I can't think of many films like it. Music by Rachel Portman.