It’s the last day of the summer vacation in 1962. Tomorrow, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are heading off to university, leaving behind their two friends Terry (Charles Martin Smith) and John (Paul Le Mat), as well as Steve’s girlfriend and Curt’s younger sister Laurie (Cindy Williams). Over the course of this night spent on their local driving strip, these four friends will undergo various adventures that may change their lives forever.
American Graffiti is a classic. It wasn’t the first hangout movie, in which the driving narrative takes a backseat to general ambience and character-based vignettes, but it’s amongst the most popular, capturing the nostalgia of the 60s American car culture and the general direction-free listlessness of the teenage life. For me it’s more known as “that other George Lucas film” (THX-1138 is “that other, other George Lucas film”, the one I haven’t seen yet), and “that film where pretty much nothing happens and it’s really boring”.
That’s the thing, for the most part I don’t enjoy hangout movies. Films like Easy Rider, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, A Hard Day’s Night and the worst half of Richard Linklater’s filmography (yeah, I said it, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood and the whole Before saga can go kick rocks) just don’t do it for me. I like a good, solid narrative, a story arc with a clear goal we’re heading towards, other than will Curt decide to go to university tomorrow, or will Steve and Laurie reconcile by the end of the night. There are some exceptions – I love The Breakfast Club and The Big Chill, for instance, but I saw both of those when I was at a more impressionable age, so perhaps that has something to do with it.
“Ah!” I hear you cry, “but surely you can appreciate the attention to detail of the period setting and the recreation of the atmosphere of the end of a 1960s American summer?” Well, sort of. Everything looks great, especially given the meagre budget, but it’s creating a replica of a time and a culture I do not understand. The notion of the only forms of entertainment available being either school dances or endlessly driving up and down the same relatively short stretch of road sounds like a living nightmare. It doesn’t help that I despise driving and cars in general, so any compliment given to someone’s car looking cool or an insult to the contrary fell flat on me, because they all just look like impractical weapons causing more harm than good. The film feels equal parts as though it was made in the 60s whilst also being laced with nostalgia for the era, which I think was the exact tone Lucas was going for, so kudos for that.
“But what about the soundtrack? It’s full of totally hip tunes, daddy-o!” Firstly, stop talking like that. Secondly yeah, the soundtrack is great, but why did it have to be playing incessantly throughout the entire film, and who decided that the songs playing were more important than the dialogue? What is this, Tenet? So yes, I liked a lot of the songs, but by this point in time most of them are overplayed or too on the nose (at the high school “hop”, they’re literally singing Let’s Go To The Hop). I know that the future popularity of the songs isn’t the fault of the film, but I’m just expressing my 2021 opinion on this 1973 film, and sometimes I like to take a break from music, y’know? Even just for a minute or two.
Speaking of a 2021 opinion, the main guys are all scumbags. Ron Howard’s Steve in particular tries to guilt his girlfriend into having sex with him, so he can have “something to remember her by” when he’s at college, and that’s after he proposes the notion that, whilst he’s away, they date other people to strengthen their own relationship. It’s pretty clear his true motive is to get his end away with as many college girls as he can con. Meanwhile Terry the Toad is busy trying to lie his way into the pants of Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) and Curtis spends the entire night stalking a mystery blonde woman (Suzanne Somers) who he thinks said she loved him through the window of her car. I get it, these are kids, kids are dumb and they make dumb decisions, but if that’s the case then maybe don’t make a film about them. John is the closest to being a decent guy as, when he’s out cruising for a ladyfriend to take for a ride, he gets lumbered with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), someone’s kid sister instead, and instead of abandoning her to the world at large he instead takes care of her, despite somewhat reluctantly.
There are some decent segments I enjoyed – Toad trying to buy liquor, the adventures Curtis has with a street gang, the insult exchange between John and Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), an out-of-towner out to claim John’s title of fastest car on the strip – but everything else felt like a slog to get through, especially all of Steve’s scenes.
I appreciate that there’s probably a lot more depth to this film than I’m giving it credit for, and I’m sure that much could be read into the events in the film and how they affected the lives of the four guys (perhaps it could be read that over the course of one night Curtis experiences every kind of life that this little town has to offer, thereby enforcing his climactic decision) but I can’t get past how bored I was for most of the film. Also, and this is what really aggravated me, the film ends with a title card epilogue revealing the fates of the four main characters. I won’t ruin it, suffice to say things came to something of a final stop for at least one, possible two of them, which made me wonder what in the heck the point of the film was at all, if it’s going to end with such finality for half the main cast. Is that the point of the film? That whatever you do, it doesn’t really matter because death comes to us all and one day you’ll just be an epilogue, and that’s if you’re lucky? Man, what a downer.
Choose Life 5/10