The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘American Graffiti’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “American Graffiti.”

The info:

The Movie: “American Graffiti”

Starring:  Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat

Director: George Lucas

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A couple of high-school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 95 percent

Our take:

Brown: Last week, we went back to the land of 1899, when spunky teenagers ruled the world and Christian Bale was in charge of a Communist revolution in “Newsies.”

Now, we go to the star-studded 1960s for a movie that is highly regarded enough to be preserved in the Library of Congress in “American Graffiti,” a George Lucas joint.

Before he enhanced my childhood before obliterating it with the “Star Wars” franchise, Lucas was the man in charge of reminding our parents of their glory days. And I will say that “American Graffiti” certainly captures a certain time in America.

The public loved this movie, with “American Graffiti” making $140 million on a budget under $800,000. But, is it a good film? Well, get yourself a Cherry Coke at the drive-in fast-food joint and give it some thought. Froemming and I certainly have our thoughts.

So, Froemming, was it weird to watch a George Lucas movie where Han Solo is piloting a car with a cowboy hat on?

Froemming: This is our third trip into the land of Lucas. The first JOE-DOWN was “Force Awakens,” which he had nothing to do with, but is still connected to him. We also reviewed “Indiana Jones And The Survival Of A Nuke In A Fridge.” But this is the first time we’ve reviewed a movie Lucas himself has made.

And it is my Exhibit A in the theory that Lucas has no sense of structure and plot in films. Angry at the prequels? You shouldn’t if you enjoy this, since this movie is just as baffling as those films.

People on Facebook got excited when we said we were going to do this film. My dad even liked the post. I think this movie is well regarded solely on Boomers feelings of nostalgia of a pre-Vietnam, pre-JFK and pre-Hippie world. They like it much like I enjoy “Mallrats,” it reminds people of a simpler time, but with me there is more Kevin Smith-inspired dick jokes.

Brown: OK, we have to get something out of the way before breaking down this movie: The plot is practically non-existent. It all takes place in a random night in 1960s California and everyone’s idea of a roarin’ night out is driving their cars down the main strip of town. All our main characters — Steve (Howard), Curtis (Dreyfuss), Milner (Le Mat) and Toad (Charles Martin Smith) — all have separate stories throughout the night, but none of it feels that cohesive. And when it tries to be cohesive, it just comes out sloppy. This is the anti-”Pulp Fiction.”

So, because we should get our anger out of the way, let’s get into Steve’s story arc.

Froemming: I just want to say I didn’t even know the characters’ names until halfway through. Not because I was uninterested, but I don’t recall hearing them at all at the start.

Richie Cunningham Steve is about to head off to college and has a brilliant bomb to drop on his high school sweetheart: Hey, let’s have an open relationship while I am away!

Look, there was no way this was going to work in his advantage. I am surprised Steve’s girlfriend didn’t just leave and hook up with Fonzie….wait, this was “Happy Days: The Movie” right?

Brown: I’ll just be direct: I hate Steve and his girlfriend, Laurie. Not because they’re acted poorly (although I would have preferred Ron’s brother, MTV Movie Award Lifetime Achievement Award winner Clint Howard). That was fine. It’s because they are despicable people.

Right away, you see Steve trying to weasel his way out of their relationship without officially breaking it up because he’s a coward. We’re told he’s a coward because, as it turns out, Laurie was the one to make all the moves in the relationship up to this point.

Then the rest of their story is Laurie trying to act OK with Steve saying that dating other people would “strengthen their relationship.” Steve be kicked in the junk for saying that, because that is the most high-school ass thing to say. Laurie isn’t OK with it and she spends the rest of the movie trying to make Steve jealous. And Steve is mopey because, well, he knows he’s an ass.

Then when we get to the climax of the film (we’ll elaborate on that when we reach Milner), Laurie’s near-death experience frightens Steve enough to stay home to his needy girlfriend that he manipulated through the entire film.

The whole time, they hate each other, then they’re making out. And the entire time, I’m hoping Steve gets drafted so we can all be relieved of this abusive romance.

Froemming: At least Steve and Laurie didn’t turn out to be brother and sister, like that other movie franchise of George’s…

This movie is 99 percent people in cars yelling at one another. If you have ever been to St. Cloud, Minn., this film feels like that town’s origin story, because that is all people do in that city (full disclosure, that is my hometown).

I had no interest in the story of Steve and Laurie. Unfortunately, the next story we will follow is Curtis, who frustrated me to no end.

Why? Because I have never met a person who (REDACTED) loved high school so much that they were already nostalgic about it three months after graduating! Curtis is the most pathetic character I have seen in a movie in a very long time.

Brown: I could at least relate to Curtis in the idea that he’s lost and doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. Should he go east for college? Or, should he stay home?

Froemming: He should get drafted. That would shut him up real quick.

Brown: The problem is, he’s such an annoying dweeb.

It took me a while to figure it out, but it finally dawned on me: Richard Dreyfuss’ portrayal of Curtis is the archetype for Rob Schneider. They talk the same and walk the same. They’re insufferable. People really don’t like Curtis. There is a point where a gang of greasers (called the Pharaohs) that were threatening to beat up Curtis, and I was openly cheering for this.

There’s also one scene where a girl that’s driving Curtis around (basically, if you had a car in the ‘60s, you were EVERYONE’S taxi), instead of helping the driver flirt with a guy, he just tells him upfront, “Hey dude, she really wants you.” You deserved to get kicked out of the car.

Even after Curtis’ annoyance hits peak levels, we see him thinking a blonde in a Thunderbird is his dream woman, like a lame-ass Garth from “Wayne’s World.”

Froemming: OK, here is my big issue with Curtis: He applied, was accepted and this in the night before he is to go to college. He had plenty of time to back out. He even took that check from the Moose Lodge. He has no spine, and I had no sympathy for him. I mean, he obsesses over a woman in a T-Bird who mouthed something at him, and suddenly he is Ahab searching for his White Whale. That is borderline creepy.

Also, he helps the greasers rob the arcade owned by a guy in the Moose Lodge who gave him that check.

Brown: In a teenage movie trope that has lived through the ages, in order to find his dream woman, Curtis gets the help of our omnipresent force in the movie in radio disk jockey and eventual trident stabbing victim of Bill Brasky, Wolfman Jack.

It’s just a bunch of love-struck BS that I just cannot relate to. Plus, Curtis keeps turning down popsicles from the DJ. He’s a monster. A literal monster. Eat the popsicles from the guy playing the tunes, because it’s the only thing I throughly enjoyed in this movie.

Froemming: When he kept turning down those popsicles, I wanted the Wolfman to howl in rage and beat him to death with his microphone. There, I fixed your stupid movie, Lucas.

Also, I love the Legends of Wolfman Jack in this film. These teens must have been eating paint chips their whole lives, because they seem a bit touched believing a DJ flies around on an airplane recording a radio show to avoid the law.

Brown: Look folks, if this review feels a bit scattered, blame George Lucas’ bad filmmaking, not us.

With that said, let’s go to Toad before we get to Milner, since Milner ties in better with the ending. Naturally, a kid named Toad is the Screech of the group, but he gets a coup when Steve tells Toad that he can look after his car while he’s at college. Gee, thanks for the responsibility Steve, you flaming sociopath…

With Steve’s car (which is a nice car, I grant you that), Toad fakes confidence and convinces a buxom blonde, Debbie, to join him for the night.

And that’s when things get crazy (insert sarcastic eye roll here).

Froemming: Debbie is an alcoholic and wants booze so she can put up with Toad. So we get a classic kid-outside-a-liquor-store scene, where Toad is trying to get people to buy booze for him.

Now, this obviously fails the first time because he gets a homeless bum who babbles like he is on a Charles Bukowski-esque bender.

His second attempt baffled me. The guy agree, runs out with the booze wrapped in a bag like it was purchased, but the liquor store owner comes flying out shooting a gun. Forget these goofy teenagers, this seems like a better story to follow.

Brown: You expect the guy to be a cop or something and arrest Toad for trying to buy booze as a teenager. Instead, the clerk jumps out and starts trying to shoot the robber. This was probably my favorite scene of the movie.

Then, because this is what teens apparently did in the ‘60s, Toad and Debbie go down to the ol’ waterin’ hole and start getting hot and heavy. But because car sex is apparently too much for our pal Toad, he elects to go out to a field with Debbie and resume their heavy makeout session. And they do this while leaving the keys in the ignition so they can barely hear the radio.

… Look, Toad is portrayed as the smart one of the group. He is, in fact, the dumbest. I won’t even listen to any argument about anyone else in this film matching his stupidity. You deserve to have that car stolen.

Froemming: Then he lies to Steve (who is stranded out in the middle of the woods because of course he is) about the car.

Brown: Steve is in the woods because he is an A-HOLE. Dude, you dropped the line about wanting to see other people. Don’t get all huffy at Laurie when she doesn’t want your sexual advances.

Froemming: Toad’s web of lies are almost as disturbing as Steve’s emotional manipulation of Laurie. He tells Steve the car is in the shop. He tells Debbie he has another car. Toad deserves the ass whoopin’ he gets when he tries to steal the car back later on in the film. He is not only dim, but a dirty liar as well.

Brown: But, because of movies, Debbie admits she had fun and tells Toad to call him sometime. Look, you and I know how this story will end: Toad and Debbie will get married. And their lives will be filled with poor choices, excess drinking, eight kids and two people unfulfilled.

Froemming: Except Toad evades that because (SPOILER) he goes missing in action near An L?c. Toad didn’t die though, I argue he became the Zodiac Killer who was never found and brought to justice. It is his revenge on people in cars making out and having a good time without repercussions.

Brown: If you were like me, Froemming, you wished that Toad would take a hatchet to the skull when Debbie kept talking about the goat killer.

Froemming: Maybe he was the goat killer…that would foreshadow his Zodiac killer gig in the 1970s.

Brown: No, being the goat killer would have made me interested in this film.

Now that we got three meaningless plots discussed, let’s get to our James Dean rip-off in Milner.

Froemming: Let’s not beat around the bush here: Milner is obviously, like Dennis Reynolds, into underage women and should be in prison. He picks up a pre-teen Mackenzie Phillips as he is joy riding around town. Instead of kicking her to the curb, he just lets her ride around with him. (REDACTED) this movie.

Brown: Hey now, let’s provide some context here.

  1. Mackenzie Phillips is just kind of put into his car. He tries flirting with a car full of ladies and she’s the one that runs into Milner’s truck. And because Carol (Phillips’ character) has a sister who clearly doesn’t care about her younger sibling’s well-being, drives away while Carol is in a car with a stranger.
  2. This was a different America. Hell, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin years before. Not saying it was a better America. Just a different America, clearly run by Shelbyville Manhattan.

And I will go on record for this: Milner is the only character I enjoy in this movie because he is the only redeemable one, thanks to his story with Carol. She annoys the hell out of him, but he’s protective of her and at the end of the movie does care about her. When he gives Carol the top of his shifter as something to remember him by (her request), that’s a genuine nice moment.

Froemming: With Lucas, as you told me, a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then. That was this scene.

But Milner has other problems. See, he has the greatest smuggler in the galaxy looking after him, Han Solo Bob Falfa.

Brown: Bob Falfa would be a terrible name for a smuggler. Smart move by Lucas to use Han Solo years later. Also, do you think Falfa’s hot rod could do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs?

Froemming: Falfa wants to race Milner, because this is a movie that takes place in the early 1960s and drag racing and jazz cigarettes were all the rage.They have an early altercation where Milner doesn’t race him because Carol is in the car. But at the end, Falfa gets his chance at the life fulfilling glory of beating some grease monkey in suburbia California at a race. And what happens? Falfa swerves off the road and his car explodes.

Wouldn’t have happened if Lando Calrissian was piloting that thing.

Brown: Hell, it wouldn’t have happened if Chewbacca was piloting the thing.

When they do the drag race, Falfa has Laurie in the car with him after picking her up and trying to collect a fare flirt with the heartbroken woman. And, because the Stetson hat cut off the circulation to Han’s brain and he crashes, Laurie is roughed up from the crash as well, leading to a tearful embrace from our favorite co-dependent couple of Laurie and Steve.

Now, a major question I have from this movie: When the hell do these kids sleep? It’s dark the entire movie. When Toad goes to the liquor store, he’s told it is a quarter-til-12 (midnight), and I was mad because I live in a state where liquor stores close at 10 p.m.

By the time the drag race starts, the damn sun is coming up. Don’t these kids have lives? Go to bed. Hell, the Pharaohs go to bed before then, and their leader looks like post-drug binge Johnny Cash.

Froemming: Even the teens in “Dazed and Confused” had the excuse of drugs and alcohol and all-night partying as to why they are awake at sunrise. Also, “Dazed and Confused” took the concept of this movie, but had a more coherent plot and was a more enjoyable film.

But we see here at the end (we completely glossed over the sock hop, which looked like the “Buddy Holly” video by Weezer mixed with the “Take My Hand” scene in “Walk Hard”) that because Steve and Laurie are doomed to a loveless marriage because of co-dependency, Curtis decides he will go off to college. He probably looked into Steve’s dead, doomed eyes and saw a future of sadness and mediocrity if he stuck around.

Brown: Yeah, this movie also has the problem of just lazily ending the movie. Curtis jumps onto a plane to go back to college after his dream blonde decides to be a tease. Then, as the plane flys off, we get yearbook photos of our main characters and tells us (by text) of their fates. Milner dies thanks to a drunk driver. Steve becomes an insurance salesman in the town. Toad dies in Vietnam (Froemming: Or did he?). And Curtis becomes an author, although I don’t know if that is before or after his venture into New England to listen to a crazy WWII Navy man tell haunting tales before killing a man-eating shark.

The movie just ends because life is meaningless. And honest to God, my final note for this movie was: I just wasted almost two hours of my life.

We’ve watched movies with cowboys fighting dinosaurs and Jean-Claude Van Damme in a comedy, and this is the first time I’ve written this phrase.

Froemming: Let’s hop in our jalopies and drag race over to recommendations.


Brown: If you’re a baby boomer and you want to have a nostalgia trip about your wasted youth, then sure, watch this. But if you’re a Gen-X’er or later, or if you want to watch a good movie, don’t bother. This is a disjointed movie that really doesn’t hold its own if you’re not gushing about how this was like your childhood.

Froemming: We have a cardinal rule here at the JOE-DOWN: Don’t be a boring film. This film violates that with its aimlessness, lack of plot and unlikable characters. I can’t recommend this film.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

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