#191 American Graffiti

(1973, George Lucas)

“Last night in town… you guys gonna have a little bash before you leave?”

There’s something awkward about films based on nostalgia. There are times when they can feel massively overindulgent, with a director making a movie simply to relive his or her youth; the last refuge of a director who has no real imagination or original ideas, leading them to just trawl through their past. To be fair, if they do it well, they can give a great insight into what it was like to live at a certain time and take the audience back to them as if they grew up with them. If they do it badly, well…

Enter George Lucas, who’s built an entire career of the back of paying homage to 1930s adventure serials, so he knows all about a lack of ideas. And so, this is his nostalgia movie, American Graffiti.

American Graffiti tells the stories of four friends on their last day before they venture into adulthood. How they spend their last night varies. Steve (Ron Howard) is planning to head off to university and is trying to convince his girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), to enter into an open relationship while they’re away from each other, which she doesn’t take well. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is having doubts about going to university, and then spends most of the evening trying to track down a mysterious blonde girl he finds sexy. Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the geekiest of the group, gets to look after Steve’s car, and he uses it to clumsily win the affections of a rebellious girl called Debbie (Candy Clark). John (Paul Le Mat) goes cruising around and ends up with an underage teenage girl, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), in his car who insists that he drive her around and show her a good time.

Here’s my general opinion on each of the four stories. First off, I enjoyed Toad’s story. It was the most entertaining, and the jokes were generally very funny. His interactions with Debbie were hilarious, especially when trying to convince her that he owned several cars and was old enough to buy liquor. In fact, the liquor store scenes were probably my favourite, as Toad clumsily attempts to convince older guys to buy booze for him and ends up inadvertently being involved with a hold-up. Shame I can’t say the same for much of the rest of the movie.

Steve and Laurie’s story stumbles at the first hurdle simply because Steve is such an intensely unlikeable character with terrible motivations. It’s easy to feel sorry for Laurie because of how much Steve just can’t seem to grasp why “let’s see other people but still be a couple” sounds like such a bad idea to her. But the movie seems determined to make us like him when it’s just impossible.

John’s story tries to be just as funny as Toad’s, but ends up being just plain awkward. Aside from the fact that Carol is irritating as all hell, all attempts at humour in this section just seem to fall flat. It’s hard to believe that John wouldn’t just chuck the girl out of the car at the earliest opportunity, especially when he seems to concerned with his image. The interactions between them were awkward, and not in a funny awkward kind of way, but in a just plain difficult to watch kind of way.

But it’s Curt’s story that wins the award of the worst of the bunch. It’s incredibly disjointed, with each of his scenes rarely following on from the last. One minute he’s hanging around with Steve and Laurie at the farewell dance, the next he’s making out with an ex-girlfriend before being kicked out of her friend’s car, then he’s doing dares with a local greaser gang for some reason, then he’s at a radio station meeting “legendary” radio DJ Wolfman Jack. It’s all so broken up it’s impossible to keep track of, and it’s easy to forget his primary motivation is a random blonde woman he saw in a car early on in the movie until he mentions it to Wolfman.

Hell, this broken up nature is one of the movie’s overall flaws. None of the stories match up that well, and the constant flipping between them could be disorienting at times. There are also long stretches of movie where absolutely nothing of note happens, especially in the first half hour. The film dragged throughout and failed to keep me engaged for the most part.

What’s worse is that the film handles one of its few moments of excitement very poorly. After a huge build-up to a big drag race between John and a local smarm-master driver named Han Solo Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), the race lasts all of ten seconds and all tension is lost. The movie then just peters out without anyone really achieving anything of note.

Remember how I said at the top of the review that nostalgic movies have the potential to draw an uninitiated crowd to what it was like living at that time? American Graffiti is not that movie. This is a self-indulgent exercise in George Lucas living out his teenage years again in movie form. If you were around at the time of the movie’s events, then you may identify with this, but as it is, this is one form of graffiti I wouldn’t mind painting over.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford and Wolfman Jack
Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz
Cinematography by Jan D’Alquen, Ron Eveslage and Haskell Wexler
Edited by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas

Favourite Scene: The liquor store scene, one of the few genuinely funny parts
Scene That Bugged Me: Basically everything Richard Dreyfuss does

Watch it if: You have fond memories of 1962
Avoid it if: You were born in the 80s or later

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Posted on June 6, 2013, in 1970s, Comedy, Drama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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