Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Neglected Gem #48: Roger Spottiswoode's The Best of Times (1986)

Robin Williams and Kurt Russell in The Best of Times 

The Best of Times is a wonderful little movie – a small-town comedy inspired by the great Preston Sturges send-ups of the forties (Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) but sweeter and less manic, as if Jonathan Demme had lent his humanity to the enterprise. But when it opened in 1986, backed by a half-hearted advertising campaign by Universal that made it sound like a teen farce, this daffy romantic comedy about grown-ups obsessed with the glories and errors of their youth – the rare movie that wasn’t aimed at adolescents – of course it sank.

The filmmakers, Roger Spottiswoode (director) and Ron Shelton (screenwriter), had already proven themselves; their previous collaboration, with Clayton Frohman as co-writer, had been the political drama Under Fire in 1983. Except for the prevailing intelligence, the sureness of tone and style, and the canny attention to character that the two pictures share, you wouldn’t have been likely to guess they came from the same collaborators. The Best of Times is set in a mythical SoCal town called Taft that has withered in the shadow of next-door Bakersfield; the symbol of its degeneration is the 1972 football game between the rival high schools, the one match in all these years that Taft had a chance at winning because of its star quarterback, Reno Hightower, but lost at the hands of Jack Dundee, who fumbled Reno’s last-minute pass. More than a decade later, Jack (Robin Williams) still lives in a perpetual flashback, reliving that fumble. Vice-president of a local bank, he takes furtive breaks in a back room to run Super 8 footage of his moment of shame; it’s his favorite topic at home, to the endless consternation of his wife Ellie (Holly Palance), and he talks about it incessantly in bed with the amiable town prostitute, Darla (Margaret Whitton), who practices a highly individual form of psychosexual therapy in a trailer on the outskirts of Taft. (Darla and Jack’s scenes play like a warm-up for the sexual encounters between Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, which Shelton wrote and directed two years later.) But the disastrous game isn’t just Jack’s private obsession: the town hasn’t let him forget it, and his boorish, honking father-in-law (Donald Moffat, perfectly cast), who runs the Bakersfield bank that employs him, never lets a visit go by without slipping in some mocking reference to that fateful day in ’72. So, at Darla’s urging, Jack decides to provide a context for a possible reprieve – for himself and for Taft. He sets up a rematch.

He has to be devious, because his initial efforts meet with all kinds of opposition. Elly is so fed up with his football mania that she kicks him out. The locals (a crew that includes such familiar character actors as M. Emmet Walsh, R.G. Armstrong and Dub Taylor, all in top form), taking up the issue at the weekly meeting of the Caribou Lodge, have decidedly mixed feelings about putting Taft’s much-whipped ass on the line once again. (The lodge meeting, the sequence most obviously indebted to Sturges, is hilarious.) And Jack’s best buddy, Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), feels he has as much to lose as Jack has to gain. Unlike Jack, Reno bowed out in triumph: the team lost the game, but his own reputation as the best quarterback in the history of Taft High School was untarnished, and, as these things tend to, it’s even grown in the intervening years until it’s reached something like epic proportions. Reno, an easygoing guy who runs a garage and paints copies of Van Goghs and Michelangelos on vans as a sideline, enjoys his status as a retired football hero and is reluctant to endanger it. Besides, he’s feeling embattled at the moment, because his wife Gigi (Pamela Reed), complaining she’s mired in the marriage and in Taft (she longs to make it as a singer in L.A.), has decided to move out.

Pamela Reed and Holly Palance 

Shelton and Spottiswoode have a ticklish sense of what life is like in a gone-to-seed little town and a sharp eye for detail. The community drama group Elly belongs to is rehearsing a modern-day version of Fiddler on the Roof; Jack has installed a doorbell that plays the Taft H.S. alma mater; the Caribou have a secret handshake that requires the brothers to thumb their noses while they link palms. (it’s supposed to make them look like they’ve got wavy horns attached to their faces.) The football game that takes up the last half hour is full of visual jokes, most of them involving Robin Williams, who wears his uniform like a corset, skittering stiffly across the field with hyperactive eyes peeping through his mask.

With his heavy-frame banker specs and his hair carefully combed back, Williams makes the funniest football hero since Harold Lloyd in The Freshman. But the movie is not his alone; it’s evenly distributed among the four main characters. Its special ingredient is the rapport between each of the couples, and it’s hard to believe that any one of the quartet of performers could be much better. Kurt Russell looks great in grease-stained jeans and a plaid shirt-jacket, his hair long and undisciplined, a cigarette dangling from his mouth; Keane-eyed Pamela Reed’s tomboy sexiness plays neatly off his relaxed physicality. You know these two belong together: Reed plays the scene in which Gigi hands Reno a note explaining why she’s leaving him as tenderly erotic. (Later on, there’s a lovely moment when Reno tries to woo her back by standing outside her door and serenading her with a sincere poor man’s rendition of “Close to You.”) The relationship between Jack and Elly is more frankly sexual. Quarrels get them aroused – and Williams does the funniest come-on you’ve ever seen, pirouetting as he loosens his tie and chanting, “Gotta-gotta-gotta satisfy-fy!” like a sexual auctioneer. When Jack wants to get Elly back, he marches into the girls’ washroom at the high school, where the pre-game dance is being held, and courts her with sweet words outside the stall where she’s hiding out from him. It works: Holly Palance’s eyes brighten when Jack succeeds in stunning Elly into a recollection of how romantic he can be.

Through the film Jack’s blasé, punked-out teen daughter watches his antics with a mixture of amazement and bemusement. When Elly, dressing up for the dance, tries to explain everyone’s motive for the rematch – the desire many of us have to go back in time and do right what we messed up the last time – she’s still puzzled, and Elly realizes that, of course, it’s a wish only a grown-up can understand. What was ironic about Universal’s teen-market campaign for this movie was that The Best of Times has the ingredients to satisfy adults emotionally. It’s a comedy about how a crackpot plan to straighten out the past stirs up enough excitement to regenerate a town – even the bankrupt movie house opens its doors again, its neon gleaming – and in the process freshens up a couple of good marriages that have begun to wilt. It’s the best kind of feel-good movie because it doesn’t cheat on its characters.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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