John Schlesinger’s notorious flop is a fascinatingly cynical – if heavily flawed – look at American culture.
Every year, it seems that film critics will pick one big movie that they will determinedly set out to talk into flopping. This tends to not simply involve dismissing the film artistically, but by continually driving home the fact that the film is a box office bomb, even before release. Because most audiences don’t want to see a ‘flop’, it all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why do critics do this? Who knows? Maybe it’s the power trip element. But while the internet has made it a lot easier, it’s been going on for as long as I can remember, and Honky Tonk Freeway is the earliest film that I can recall it happening with, back in 1981. This was an expensive movie so relentlessly savaged by critics that it ended up losing over half its $25 million budget and more or less crippled EMI.
Of course, it’s not hard to see why the film would so upset US critics. Here was a British financed film from a British director that took a jaded, sneering look at America’s obsession with the car. It’s pretty much a smack in the face to everything that middle America holds dear, a poison pen letter to both the USA and the road movie. It was never going to go down well in Reagan’s flag-waving nation, and sure enough, the film was yanked from theatres after just one week, before it even had a chance to turn a profit.
Three decades on from its original release, Honky Tonk Freeway probably deserves a degree of reassessment. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a lost masterpiece, but it’s equally far from being the disaster that it has long been dismissed as. It’s lightweight entertainment, certainly, but there’s always a place for that sort of thing.
While the film is a lot more entertaining than it has been given credit for – and than it really should be, quite frankly – there’s no arguing that John Schlesinger’s film is a somewhat haphazard, incoherent mess. It’s overly episodic, morally dubious, pointlessly extravagant (there is no way that a film like this needed to be so damned expensive) and far too hit and miss to really be seen as a success. But it’s also, at heart, an enjoyable – if disposable – time waster. There’s nothing of great substance here (and given the pedigree of the director, maybe that too was a reason why it was greeted with such dismay) but the film is never dull and never without a mildly amusing moment just around the corner. I doubt anyone will be belly-laughing at this, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The film is centred – as much as it has a central plot – around the Florida town of Ticlaw, which sits at the side of a new interstate highway with no exit. Even a $10,000 bribe fails to secure one for them, and so, in order to attract tourists to their feeble safari park (complete with water-skiing elephant) and other meagre attractions, they resort to desperate measures – painting the whole town pink, posting illegal signage and offering free gas. Later, they are driven to even more desperate behaviour.
Tied in around this are a series of individual stories about the assorted people who will end up in Ticlaw by the end of the film, unconnected travellers from around the country. There are the two bank robbers from New York; the would-be children’s author whose wife has burned the manuscript of his latest book, Rudy the Carnivorous Pony; a dentist, his wife and two ghastly children; an elderly couple; a sex pot who has slept with all the men in her town; a pair of nuns; and several others.
Right away, you can see where the film’s problem lies. There are far too many characters, and more are continually introduced throughout the film. It’s impossible for any of these people to develop fully fleshed out personalities as the film jumps from one to the other, giving us snippets of their lives but rarely having any of them interact until the end of the film (and even then, not very much). There is just too much going on here, quite frankly. At no point are we drawn into the narrative, because as soon as we’ve been introduced to one set of characters, we’re then taken off to meet some more. And very few of the characters we meet seem like they even have the potential to be interesting, which the film itself seems to be aware of, having some of them vanish from the screen for ages before suddenly popping back up again like the return of an unwelcome rash. Edward Clinton’s screenplay would, frankly, be a lot better if he’d dumped most of the characters and instead concentrated on the most interesting three or four. As it is, the film feels like an episodic collection of moments rather than a coherent whole, and while many of these moments are entertaining enough in and of themselves, they don’t make for a solid narrative. It feels, in fact, a lot closer to a sketch film than anything else.
Still, there is no point when Honky Tonk Freeway becomes boring or annoying. You might not really care about any of the characters, but they are entertaining enough to watch, and the cast of big names and familiar faces – William Devane, George Dzundza, Beau Bridges, Terri Garr, Beverley D’Angelo, Geraldine Page and others – all do their best to make their characters real. There’s a curious lack of morality that runs through the film that is, perhaps, very much of its time – the bank robbers get away with their crime, a sleazy pimp is allowed to smooth talk women into becoming hookers without any punishment and two of the cast have a sexual liaison in a broom closet behind their partners’ backs in a curiously mean-spirited moment that adds nothing to the film other than to make us immediately dislike the pair of them. That sense of cynical unpleasantness is perhaps the thing that so upset some critics – this is a portrayal of an America that is selfish, corrupt, shallow, greedy, criminal, immoral and nasty, and while the movie doesn’t labour the point, it’s easy to see how it would pick away some people’s sense of national pride (and perhaps hit a little too close to home for some). It doesn’t suggest America as an especially nice place, and the sense of cynicism that runs through the film is what makes it more interesting than many a bloated bomb of the time.
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