Roads Less Traveled -- Looking For Love, Home And Family In Van Sant's Chaotic `Idaho'

----------------------------------------------------------- XXXX "My Own Private Idaho," with River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert, Udo Kier. Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare. Broadway Market and Varsity. "R" - Restricted, due to strong language, nudity. ----------------------------------------------------------- What do narcolepsy, street hustlers and William Shakespeare have in common?

Portland-based film director Gus Van Sant.

One of the most original cinematic talents at work in this country, Van Sant ("Drugstore Cowboy") has a knack for pulling disparate elements together and twisting them into wildly funny lyrical odysseys of the mind and heart. His wayward heroes, always impenitent and usually broke, bash their way - or get bashed - into altered states of consciousness that impose a strangely serene veneer on their sorry situations.

In "My Own Private Idaho," orphaned street hustler Mike Waters (River Phoenix) winds up in typically dire straits on a desolate Idaho back road, after a chaotic search for home and family takes him from the potato state to Seattle to Portland, Ore., to Rome and back to Idaho again.

"I'm a connoisseur of roads," he says. "I've been tasting roads my whole life."

Delectably filmed, ingeniously scored, and scripted with seedy gusto, "My Own Private Idaho" follows Mike's perilous progress down those roads . . . when Mike is awake to take them in, that is.

For Mike suffers from narcolepsy - "an illness characterized by brief periods of deep sleep" - and his condition is triggered by stressful situations. Turning tricks for demanding johns (Udo Kier, Stanley Hainesworth), or a woman who reminds him of his long-lost mother (Grace Zabriskie), can unnerve him to the point where he conks out before he even gets his clothes off.

As his best friend Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) says, "Some hustler, huh?"

With Scott looking after him, Mike is apt to wake up groggily in a different city from the one he fell asleep in. But his friendship with Scott may be drawing to a close. Scott is the son of the mayor of Portland, and after three years of street life under the tutelage of Bob Pigeon (William Richert, director of "Winter Kills," as the Fagin-like leader of an army of callboys), he's about to come into his inheritance. With money in hand, he plans to turn over a new leaf.

As Scott and Mike's adventure takes them far afield, the question arises whether their friendship can survive the gulf between highlife and lowlife that they face. Mike's yearning for Scott's love is another barrier. Scott sees gay sex only as a means of making money.

Technical daring marks every step of the film. For those familiar with Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two," the parallel between Scott and Prince Hal, and Bob and Falstaff, will be evident. Shakespearean passages - for instance, Prince Hal's taunting inquiry as to why a blackguard like Falstaff should care about the time of day - are twisted and updated to include references to cocaine, gay bars and black leather.

Along with pseudo-Shakespearean soliloquies, Van Sant breathes new life into the sex scene (briefly glimpsed still-lifes, with a hurdy-gurdy accompaniment) and plot exposition (the hustlers formally introduce themselves to the viewer from the covers of gay skin magazines that come to life). He also offers the most memorable visual metaphor for orgasm since Stanley Kubrick opened the trapdoors on Alex in "A Clockwork Orange."

He's lucky enough to have a cast that's with him all the way. Phoenix is a knockout - there's no other word for it. He brings a longing and naivete to Mike that's both achingly funny and achingly sad. Reeves' Scott is in appropriately guarded contrast to Mike - Scott loves his wild days because he knows they won't last.

Giving crucial support are Kier, Richert and a host of others. Cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell and composer Bill Stafford make the film's visuals and musical score as integral a part of its vision and wit as the performances and story.

If "Drugstore Cowboy" left anyone in doubt, "My Own Private Idaho" makes clear that Van Sant is a master of his medium and an inspired risk-taker.