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More American Graffiti

More American Graffiti
Universal Home Video
1979 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Purple Haze / Street Date September 2, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Candy Clark, Bo Hopkins, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Anna Bjorn, Scott Glenn, James Houghton, John Lansing, Manuel Padilla Jr., Ken Place, Mary Kay Place, Wolfman Jack, Rosanna Arquette
Caleb Deschanel
Montage Designer Scott Bartlett
Art Direction Ray Storey
Optical coordinator Peter Donen
Film Editor Tina Hirsch
Produced by Howard Kazanjian, George Lucas
Written and Directed by B.W.L. Norton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

More American Graffiti is more than just a disappointment, it's an unqualified disaster. Something happened between the original and this dismal followup, and it's hard to determine exactly what. Bill (B.W.L.) Norton, of Cisco Pike, had just done Convoy the year before, a sterling recommendation credit if I ever heard one.

If there was a decent thought behind the idea of regrouping the American Graffiti crowd for another go-round, it got lost in the mix. Or perhaps the project was ignored to death while Lucas made The Empire Strikes Back. Whatever happened, an anonymous stranger to the American Graffiti mythos couldn't have done worse than its creator did with this sequel.


Three different New Years' Eves are cross-cut: In 1964 local drag-race whiz John Milner (Paul Le Mat) gets ignored by the pros but puts together a great racing day, with the help of his second Carlos (Manuel Padilla Jr.). He also falls in love with Icelandic exchange student Eva (Anna Bjorn). In 1965, Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is part of a chopper crew in 'Nam, with Little Joe the Pharaoh (Bo Hopkins) as his closest buddy. As they go on more dangerous missions, Terry looks for a way of getting himself sent home - any way. 1967: Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark), thinking her boyfriend Terry is dead, tries to get married to her new beau, a useless doper. But then she falls in with a wild band and meets Newt (Scott Glenn). 1968: Steve and Laurie Bolander (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) have a falling out. She ditches him with the kids, ends up in a violent street demonstration, and Ron comes to rescue her.

First off, the major sins. There's no Richard Dreyfuss. He'd just won an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl and wouldn't do free inserts for Steven Spielberg, let alone play along with George Lucas. More American Graffiti isn't really a sequel to the original, it's a sequel to the final 'what happened to them' titles that end the first film on a somber note, the titles that tell us that Terry the Toad and John Milner both meet violent ends. So the fun feeling of the first movie isn't here at all.

Not that it could be. The whole point of American Graffiti was that that was the 'magic night' in 1962 when it all came together, where the personal adventures of 8 Modesto teens converge in a night to end all nights. They all have dreams, and all their dreams are answered in ironic ways. The dork gets a date with a hot blonde who loves to make out. The little kid gets her fantasy of having a real live boyfriend. The bookworm Kennedy fan gets to hang out with the hoods. And the square couple break up but come back together for a clinch that will last a lifetime. It's the stuff (in '73) of extinct teen behavior - sock hops, cruising, street drag racing, and the fantasy that dreams can come true. If a sequel started the next night, covering the same kind of activity, it would be a joke - the characters have already changed. It's all over so far as a story is concerned.

More American Graffiti was already trumped by the rip-off TV show Happy Days, which upped Ron Howard's career and gave us a flattened, stupid version of the Lucas hit. What strikes us about this 1979 turkey is how nothing about it seems to have a clue, and nothing in it even begins to work, not even for a moment, no matter how much we want it to. The parade's gone by.

The story's '3 New Years' Eves' construction only seems to be a dodge for the fact that nobody could concoct a film where these characters might be together. Instead, we get: 1) A poor man's version of Apocalypse Now, probably before that show came out; 2) A re-run of campus riots in The Strawberry Statement, only made into harmless fun; 3) A dull drag-racing story; and 4) a psychedelic Rock'n Roll story that's as klunky as Psych-Out. It's all topped off with ersatz style in the form of trendy Fillmore West graphics, annoying split screens, a 16mm look for the Vietnam story, etc.

Nobody gets out of this one alive. Charles Martin Smith is still a likeable guy, but he's stuck with terrible material that wants to make sure we know how incompetent and unfair a place Vietnam is. There's so much broad comedy out there that the episode finds no tone, and makes sense neither as drama nor comedy.

Paul Le Mat has a hard day at the track - nothing fun, nothing special. We remember very well what fate has in store for him, so there's little joy in seeing him triumph with the help of a former competitor, or meet an adorable Icelandic girl he can barely talk to. There's no emotional curve to his story, and we just don't stick with him.

Ron Howard (here by 'special participation', meaning 'pay me more, I'm the only one with a career') and the wonderful, under-used Cindy Williams are just terrible in the campus demonstration section. They break up like Ricky and Lucy, and individually discover they're the only Republican Conservatives at a draft card-burning, cops-club-the-hippies riot. Big laughs, there, especially when Insurance square Ron slugs a cop and hijacks a police bus. Right on, yawn.

There's just so little wit to all of the above. It's a matter of finding a tone, and maybe there isn't one to be found. American Graffiti was sort of a fantasy, but not really; we who were there (okay, I was in the 7th grade) all recognized the feeings and the mythology in the first film. But the characters just weren't meant to have afterlives. It isn't a fantasy like Into The Woods, where extrapolating a cluster of Fairy Tale people into an uncertain future finds truths we can all relate to.

The final sideshow of More American Graffiti has Candy Clark, the ditz who just wanted to get drunk and possibly l__d, now a fairly mature 22 year-old dealing with a pothead loser of a boyfriend before having a fling with a traveling band. Trying desperately to be wild and crazy, they hit trash cans in their hippie van and drive through parks for kicks. They play at a country-western bar (?) and a big donnybrook of a fight starts. Candy ditches her boyfriend for a new beau.

Just about the only possibly clever thing that happens is the resolution of Charlie Martin Smith's story, but we leave him just as it's getting good. Everybody else just sings Auld Lang Syne on their respective New Year's Eves, and it doesn't mesh.

I implied above that I'd get around to the good stuff, but I lied. There really isn't any. Ron Howard's kid climbing into a fish tank isn't funny. Charlie Martin Smith trying to shoot himself isn't funny. Paul Le Mat failing to make out with his Icelanic acquaintence isn't funny. It just thinks it is.

Some original characters are shoehorned in, for recognition value. Loyal Harrison Ford returns as Bob Falfa in a bit that goes nowhere. Mackenzie Phillips literally walks in and out of a scene: was she too unreliable to be given a part, or was there just no real place for her? Pharaohs Bo Hopkins and Manuel Padilla Jr. also have little to do.

Scott Glenn survives by being low-key (he doesn't know yet to what degree he's been cut out of Apocalypse Now), but they've succeeded in making the charming Mary Kay Place somehow ugly and obnoxious. I hope it was intentional.

Universal's DVD of More American Graffiti looks fine, and finally represents the film on video as it was meant to be seen, with its split-screens and other attempts at visual distinction. The string of radio hits on the soundtrack sounds good, but doesn't connect with the film. The original, if you'll recall, motivated the oldies by having them mostly come from car radios and other real sources. The perspectivized mix was brilliant, and the songs became a character by riffing on the inner dreams of the adolescent heroes. In More American Graffiti, the songs are just there to remind us what year it is. When it comes time for Candy Clark to talk about 'real' music in the story, she says the names of a bunch of phony made-up bands.

Sorry about the whining, negative review. There's usually something positive to say about every picture, and yet there's so little here - a few moments with Cindy Williams singing on the police bus, Charlie Martin Smith being heroic (and not knowing it) in the Vietnam section. If someone wants to bounce back with a hearty defense of the film, I'd be happy to print it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, More American Graffiti rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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