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The fallout from Easy Rider wasn't only felt in youth rebellion pictures. Many mainstream releases of 1970 took on an independent air or imitated European pictures, throwing out many of the trappings associated with established studio pictures. The last thing desired were wholesome pictures suitable for the family. Young turk directors mimicked Federico Fellini and made up stories out of their own dreams, or improvised with non-professional casts. The result included more than a few interesting, rewarding films. And then there were the movies that didn't quite come together...
1970's Fools wasn't made by a film student or a counterculture visionary. Director Tom Gries had a solid stack of TV credits behind him, and a couple of good features including the excellent Charlton Heston western Will Penny. Screenwriter Robert Rudelson had a few acting credits, and had previously written the talky, issue-laden screenplay for Russ Meyer's Vixen! Producers Henri Bollinger and Robert Yamin were just getting started, but Cinerama Releasing clearly became interested when they lined up a stellar acting pair for the leads.
Broadway great Jason Robards' record in films was hit and miss, scoring better as a supporting actor than as a leading man. He'd just starred in Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue which was well received critically but given a weak distribution. Katharine Ross had weathered a long apprenticeship in TV, with unrecognized appearances in good pictures like Curtis Harrington's Games but also terrible assignments like The Singing Nun. She'd just finished starring in two of the biggest hits of the decade, The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Together Robards and Ross were an impressive pair of names for a marquee.
Fools is for fans of these two actors. Rudelson's sketchy script is a pretentious and slack rant about modern life, voiced with reasonable conviction by the affable Jason Robards . His character seems a slightly soured extension of his celebrated Murray Burns from A Thousand Clowns. In the wake of the flower power years, two urban misfits meet, become lovers and enjoy each other's company until tragedy strikes. Not much happens beyond their tentative conversations and Robards' speechifying. We're never more than a few minutes away from another lyrical montage showing them kissing in a San Francisco park or roaming the environs of the City by the Bay.
Dithering L.A. actor Matthew South (Jason Robards) has earned a name but not much of a reward as the star of campy horror films. While apartment sitting in San Francisco he gets into an altercation with some other citizens sunning themselves in Ghirardelli Park. That's how he meets the gorgeous Anais (Katharine Ross), who at first seems to be a guitar-playing flower child. Matthew likes to let loose with dramatic speeches about the takeover of society by machines; he's also fond of quoting Shakespeare. Anais finds him interesting. She waits until they've made love to admit that she's not divorced, but still married to the unemotional, controlling lawyer David Appleton (Scott Hylands of Daddy's Gone A-Hunting). The troubled David has hired a detective to follow Anais. She dines with her husband to tell him for the last time that their separation is final, but can't get through to him. Matthew provides emotional support, but Anais grows increasingly concerned about what David might do.
Director Gries films the two lovers well enough, and Robards' soliloquies and Ross's tendency to strike poses never becomes annoying. Anais giggles in delight when Matthew takes her to a screening of one of his silly mad doctor movies, and the repetitive walks in the park and embraces in the fashionable apartment are pleasant despite the fact that the story has little or no forward motion. It's just about honest people in love, you see.
When the script brings in other elements, writer Rudelson's concept falls flat on its face. Several scenes are like bad one-act plays. A pair of malcontents at the park (Roy C. Jenson, Mark Bramhall) exchange disgusted opinions about the harmless people that walk by; Matthew is assaulted by an unreasonable young mother and a black dog-walker. Seeing about his damaged tooth, Matthew and the dentist overhear a crazy scene in the psychiatrist's office next door, where a nymphomanic patient (Laura Ash) is seducing her doctor (Mako). Matthew comes to the rescue of a rape victim, only to discover that she and her male companions (including a young Jack Nance) are just hippies role-playing under the influence of a drug. In the most painful "fun" scene, a pair of armed FBI men burst in on Matthew and Anais with guns drawn, only to discover they're in the wrong apartment. Proving Matthew's opinions about the collapse of society, the agents expect to be thanked "for trying", and then disappear, leaving behind a broken door. Modern life, it's like the pits, dude.
The camerawork and lighting are only okay, with the low-budget art direction showing occasional weaknesses. The production showcases a number of attractive San Francisco location scenes, always a plus. The fairly unmotivated violent ending takes place in a church during the Christening of a baby. It turns out that Anais's anxieties were justified, after all. Like everything else in the movie, this downbeat finish doesn't generate much of a dramatic impact. Fools is best appreciated as an acting showcase for its two attractive stars, who are on screen together for almost its entire running time.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of Fools is a colorful transfer of an interpositive element in good shape. The enhanced image has slightly muted hues and a soft look probably sourced in the original photography. The clear soundtrack features a background score by jazz band leader Shorty Rogers (Dementia). He's not related to Kenny Rogers of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, who are billed with singing two of the songs heard during the film's montages. Mimi Farina is the folk singer accompanying Katharine Ross in the first scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.