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"They just don't make 'em like they used to" can mean a lot of different things when you're talking about the movies. It could mean that our modern movie stars don't exactly have the same class and mystique as those from the Golden Age, or it could mean that you prefer your horror movies aged and dry as opposed to frantic and sloppy. But right now I'm talking about the modern American comedy movie, and there's just no freaking WAY that 1981's Back Roads would make it through today's studio system.
Get this: Tommy Lee Jones plays a former boxer and general lowlife who makes his money by robbing drunks in grimy alleyways. Sally Field plays a past-her-prime prostitute who, yes, actually sleeps around (a lot) in order to pay for her next meal. And this is wide-release comedic character study from the fine folks at Paramount Pictures.
But don't mistake my comments for criticisms. What I'm trying (desperately and chattily) to assert is that Back Roads would never earn a studio green-light nowadays, and if it did, then the film would be stripped bare of all its seediness and grit. The end result would be something like Pretty Woman mixed with a few drops of The Sure Thing.
Jones plays a meandering pugilist named Elmore Pratt. One night, while trying to be slightly chivalrous, he hauls off and punches a guy who's irritating a local prostitute. Whoops, that guy is a COP and now there's big trouble afoot. Quickly deciding that Mobile, Alabama, might not be the best place to hang at this particular moment, Elmore decides to hightail it out of town - due west. California, more specifically. Realizing that she has nothing but trouble brewing on the homefront, Amy (the hooker) promptly decides to come along for the ride.
Thus begins the long and enjoyably rambling interstate journey of Back Roads. Directed with a consistently realistic tone by the great Martin Ritt, Back Roads is a road movie that's not really about the trip or the destination - it's about who you're traveling with. (Ritt and Field had worked together two years prior on Norma Rae, a movie that's earned a lot more press than Back Roads has. But I like this one better.)
As the mismatched duo jump from truck-stop to greasy spoon to railroad embankment, we slowly get the impression that their 'internal' journeys are a whole lot more important then their physical one. It's not like they're both going to hit the jackpot once they hit Los Angeles, so what's most important is that Amy & Elmore try to grow up (a lot) before they get there. And while there's certainly a palpable sense of sexual tension and perhaps even a reluctant romance brewing between the two, Back Roads is only about the "mushy stuff" inasmuch as it advances the characters' emotional growth. It's easy to feel a sexual attraction to your traveling partner; much tougher to actually put their needs before your own.
The two leads are just great together. It's performances like this one that allow you to forgive the modern-day Tommy Lee Jones and his perpetual snarling sleepwalk. His Elmore is rough, gruff, and difficult to admire. At the beginning, anyway. Sally Field delivers what's arguably the most overlooked performance of her career. It seems like it would be easy to create an "Oh, poor me" prostitute caricature, but Ms. Field's performance goes well beyond that. She's not a one-note "hooker with a heart of gold," but a wounded and hopeful woman who's getting a bit too old for her current profession.
Toss in a few great little supporting performances (a young David Keith steals several scenes as a horny sailor) and a surprisingly heartfelt screenplay by the late Gary DeVore and you're left with an early 80's oddity that's certainly worthy of a second look. It's not the newest or most unique "road story" ever told, but Back Roads is quite funny and unexpectedly endearing. Those who only know Tommy Lee Jones as a snarling ol' grouch should consider this one a must-see.
Video: Since this is a catalog release from the Paramount folks, you can expect a seriously impressive Widescreen Anamorphic transfer. And they do deliver. Unlikely you've ever seen this flick look better. And that includes those who saw it on the big screen. OK, a few of the nighttime scenes exhibit some tacky little flecks (if you're looking closely), but hey, it was made in '81!
Audio: Choose between a Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 track. The dialogue is crisp and clear; the country music tunes come through boldly and beautifully. Optional subtitles are available in English only.
Extras: Nary a trace. You can often find at least a theatrical trailer on many of Paramount's catalog releases, but I guess their search through the vault bore no fruit. Oh well; the movie's the thing, don't forget.
For some reason I half-remembered Back Roads as some sort of rollicking car-chase comedy like Smokey and the Bandit or Coast to Coast. So it was with much enjoyment that I sat down for a much-needed revisit. Back Roads is a quiet and unassuming little comedy, a dual-gendered character study mixed with a low-key "road trip" adventure. It's sweet, it's melancholy, and it's a little bit unsettling, too. Plus it has two solid pros at the top of their respective game. Back Roads is absolutely worthy of a spot on your Netflix queue, at the very least.