Saturday, August 18, 2012


Michael Sarrazin is a student at a New York City university; his father (Arthur Hill) and grandmother (Ruth White) are rich, conservative and powerful—though White is stuck living in a mansion in a neighborhood which has gone downhill to the point where her property is vandalized almost nightly by hooligans. Sarrazin lives with his girlfriend Barbara Hershey (pictured with Sarrazin); she's been politically radicalized by him, but now as he approaches graduation, he's backed away from politics which pisses her off.  In fact, he seems to have backed away from anything requiring committed thought or action, becoming a vaguely unhappy and passive guy whose ties to everything around him are vanishing. One rainy night, he accidently hits and kills an old woman who stepped out in traffic without looking. He does the right thing and turns himself in, and even, against the counsel of his father's powerful lawyer (E.G. Marshall), goes to the victim's family to apologize, though he is turned away by her grief-stricken daughter (Rue McClanahan) who is confused by his gesture. He goes so far as to wear a suit to his hearing to make a good impression, but the judge, seeing in him a pattern of irresponsible behavior (over 20 unpaid parking tickets were found in his glove compartment), sentences him to a year in prison. His cellmate is a state senator in for embezzlement, and he makes friends with Gilbert Lewis, a gay black man, but when Lewis is stabbed to death in the shower, Sarrazin has to go to a hearing at which he rails against injustice (as with his car accident, he sees the stabbing as an unfortunate accident) and he gets in more trouble.  When his guards let him go to the bathroom by himself, he sees an open window and escapes and makes his way to his father, grandmother, and girlfriend before deciding to escape to Mexico rather than go back and face the music.

Some critics see this as a leftist hippie anti-establishment movie, though the only hippie in sight is Sarrazin's freeloading but likable buddy (Robert Klein). Others look at it as a Kafkaesque nightmare, Sarrazin being punished by a faceless bureaucracy for no reason (though vehicular homicide is a pretty good reason for some punishment). I see this as a kind of Hamlet story: as he approaches adulthood and independence, he realizes he's in a world not of his own making—his family wants him to be something he's not—but he can't make up his mind about what he wants to be. Escaping to Mexico is just putting off the inevitable. Sarrazin is attractive and likable but by the end, I wanted to slap him and say, "Man up, asshole, and take a stand one way or another." I might not have felt that way with a different actor in the role. The other actors, including Peter White as a cousin, Sada Thompson as an aunt, David Doyle as the senator, and William Devane (channeling Jack Nicholson) as a shady pilot, are fine, and generally make the film worth seeing.  [DVD]

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