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...And now for the six-day bicycle race:
Sometimes an underdog movie from the past jumps out as being such a superior, feel-good experience that one wonders why it wasn't voted the Best Picture of its year. 1979's Breaking Away won for Steve Tesich's flawless screenplay, and gained nominations for Best Picture, Peter Yates as director, Barbara Barrie as supporting actress and Patrick Williams' adapted music score. The Best Picture competition that year was formidable: All That Jazz, Norma Rae, Apocalypse Now and the winner Kramer vs. Kramer.
Movies about teens growing up are legion, but this may be the best picture ever about being an ordinary lower middle class kid in Middle America, raised in a cloud and completely unsure of what to do after high school. You'll love every last character in this total-win movie... curiously, the film's breakthrough star was almost the only actor not to fully exploit his well-earned success. Viewers that haven't seen Breaking Away will love it, and those that remember it from 36 years ago (good grief) will discover a cast loaded with upwardly mobile actors in their salad days.
Bloomington Indiana is home to a thriving University but the local kids are slighted as 'Cutters', a name derived from the area's now-depressed limestone quarries. 1 Dave (Dennis Christopher) is fresh out of High School and concentrating on his impressive bicycle racing skills rather than a future in work or school. His nervous father (Paul Dooley) is going nuts as Dave is on an 'Italy' kick, talking with an accent and calling him 'Papa'. Gentle soul Mom (Barbara Barrie) is doing her best to keep peace in the family. Friends Mike, Cyril and Moocher are in the same boat as Dave. Former football hero Mike (Dennis Quaid of The Right Stuff) races his car and picks fights, even though his brother is a local cop. Cyril (Daniel Stern of Diner) is a joker who seemingly chooses to fail, to get back at his father. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley of Watchmen) puts up with insults because of his size, and quits a gas station job before he even starts. Moocher does have a dedicated girlfriend, Nancy, who is as sweet as can be (Amy Wright of The Accidental Tourist. While preparing for a bike race against some real visiting Italians, Dave meets college girl Katherine (Robynn Douglas), and convinces her that he is a romantic Italian athlete as well... maintaining the bogus accent and even talking Cyril into playing guitar for a moonlight serenade beneath her window. Katherine's tony boyfriend Rod (Hart Bochner of Die Hard) doesn't like that one bit, and things soon get rough between the jocks and the Cutters.
Breaking Away is a surefire audience pleaser. In the theater it elicited the same level of cheers as did the end of Rocky, three years before. Screenwriter Tescich gets the relationships perfect -- expressing the right tone of low self-esteem that comes to kids who aren't pre-primed to be college material. Rather than criticizing the Cutters, he makes them foolish heroes, a band of maladroit Musketeers. Dennis Quaid's ex-jock tries to be cynical but is a deeply emotional character; when he almost brains himself trying to out-swim Hart Bochner's varsity athlete, we feel his humiliation. The unmotivated Cyril is in need of a buddy group, while little Moocher refuses to see himself as a loser, even if he expresses his moxie by smashing his new employer's time clock. Fortunately, Moocher is blessed with a girl who's crazy about him, yet another tiny but spot-on performance by Amy Wright.
Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie top just about any mom-dad combo in teen film history. Dad wails to his wife when his son talks like an Eye-Tie and kisses him on the cheeks, but hasn't the courage to complain to Dave's face. When Dave tries to work on his dad's used car lot, the depressing lesson he learns is that 'everybody cheats' -- something his idolized Italian cyclists have already taught him. But dad comes through when he shows Dave the limestone buildings he cut stone for when he was a younger man. Maybe college isn't a bad idea after all.
Breaking Away builds to 'the big competition', a staple of films meant to inspire kids. But this show is different. The Cutters sign up to compete against the University jocks in a bicycle track race. Only Dave has any business being in the race, and he's such a powerhouse that the plan is for him to ride the entire time, with none of his friends taking turns. Unforeseen events turn that plan upside down, however.
Peter Yates was known primarily for action and crime pictures, and by 1979 mainly for his high-octane hit Bullitt with Steve McQueen. Breaking Away carries off its action scenes with uncommon skill, especially a fistfight in the college cafeteria in which Jackie Earle Haley's Moocher takes on jocks twice his size - "Roschach" thirty years early. Yates shapes the performances with great skill. Dennis Quaid doesn't try to be too cute and Robynn Douglas is touching as the college girl who thinks she's found a fantasy boyfriend. Amy Wright is given precious little screen time yet communicates all we need to know about the supportive Nancy. We happily follow Paul Dooley into the picture's biggest laughs -- his "Refund?! Refund?!" outburst ought to be considered classic dialogue along the order of, "There's no crying in baseball".
With her soft eyes and patient expression, Barbara Barrie is a charmer. Her unassertive mother resembles a less comical Melinda Dillon from A Christmas Story, except that Barrie's mom clearly has her husband under her spell, and knows how to get her way. This movie is family-friendly without pushing any particular political ideology. Middle America looks like a fine place to be, with no apologies.
The new Twilight Time Blu-ray reveals Breaking Away to be an even more polished production than we thought it was: earlier DVDs look good but the show really pops on this HD disc. The sound is crystal clear, and TT's Isolated Score Track gives us all those opera needle-drop cues in good stereo.
A second extra audio track carries a commentary with star Dennis Christopher, who relates his story and the story of the making of the film with the prompting of Twilight Time's Nick & Nora host couple, Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. They run out of ways to praise the film as well. A trailer is included as well as two TV spots, and Julie Kirgo's essay continues the praise while pointing out that Tesich and Yates' film acknowledges the oft-denied existence of a Class System in America. I hope I haven't explained too much about the film or given away any surprises, as Breaking Away is better experienced than read about. In the 'family' category, it will be an instant favorite.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Breaking Away Blu-ray rates:
Glenn, as a retired employee of Indiana University, thanks for a very informative review of Breaking Away. I was working there when they shot it. At first the administrators didn't believe the script was real. I, being a filmmaker employed at the PBS station in Bloomington, was called to look at the script. When I saw that it was to be directed by none other that Peter Yates, I pronounced it a real shooting script. The movie turned out to be "public relations dream" when finished.
Also let me correct one thing in your review. The stone quarried in the Bloomington, Indiana area is not marble but limestone.
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T'was Ever Thus.