Judge George Hatch always felt like a fifth wheel when he was invited to join his four friends. It didn't take him long to realize he was just there to be the designated driver.
All the boys loved Georgia, but Georgia loved only three.
They say that if you remember the 1960s, then you weren't really there. Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (Breaking Away) tries to give viewers a crash course by condensing this decade of turbulence and trauma into two hours that focus on four idealistic youths each of which represents a cultural aspect of the period.
Facts of the Case
Danilo Prozor (Craig Wasson, Ghost Story) is a Yugoslavian immigrant who has been raised with a strict work ethic. His father expects him to take a job in one of the steel mills in East Chicago and earn the promised American Dream the hard way, but Danilo wants to go to college and study philosophy. David Levine (Michael Huddleston, The Woman in Red) is a chubby Jewish kid who, like Danilo, rejects the idea of following in his father's Orthodox footsteps. Already losing his hair and forced to wear glasses, he chooses to break tradition at any cost. Tom (Jim Metzler, River's Edge) is the handsome high school jock with a hidden inferiority complex who is always looking for new ways to prove himself. Enlisting in the Army during the escalating Vietnam War seems like a good idea to him.
And then there's Georgia (Jodi Thelen, The Black Stallion Returns), the prototype "flower child" manifesting herself a few years ahead of time. She wonders why "life takes so long," calls everyone "kiddo," and is certain she is the reincarnation of Isadora Duncan. "I was born on the very day and at the very hour Isadora died, and it took her soul 15 years to find somebody like me." The three boys are nuts for Georgia, but Georgia is just nuts. She may have been one of the first hippies in the 1960s, but these days she'd be called an airhead.
Let's not forget Louis (Reed Birney, Uptown Girls), Danilo's rich college roommate who is dying from a debilitating muscular disease. His only purpose in the film is to introduce Danilo to his affluent and snobbish family, and hook him up with his hot sister, Adrienne, much to the dismay of the parents on both sides of the relationship. To round things out racially, there's Rudy (Zaid Farid, Bowfinger), the token black teen who goes from "rough rider to freedom rider" when he heads for Mississippi to join the protests and sit-ins for desegregation.
It's all here in Four Friends. Innocent high school dances and beach parties are quickly subrogated by political demonstrations, flag and draft card burnings, protest rallies gone bad, and peace marches turned violent. These virtual snapshots are awkwardly integrated into the rocky and melodramatic relationships of the four friends.
Georgia wants to love all three boys in her own special way. She proclaims to Danilo, "I've made a decision. My days as a virgin are drawing to a close." When Danilo isn't up for the occasion, Georgia takes Tom for a roll in the sand and soon becomes pregnant with his "love child." Tom isn't ready to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood, so Georgia marries the more-than-willing David and names their son Isadora Duncan Levine. (This poor lad is surely headed for a severe identity crisis.) Tom feels honored to be the best man at the ceremony—and he's proud to be the only one wearing a military uniform.
Danilo woos and marries Adrienne with shockingly disastrous results. After a few aimless years of drifting, he tries to find and establish ethnic roots similar to his own in order to rekindle the principles his father tried to instill in him. Moving into a small Greek community in Pennsylvania, he takes a job in a steel mill, carrying a tin lunchbox to work each early morning, just as his father did. Georgia dumps David, saddling him with baby Isadora, and heads for the hippie haunts in New York City. More sturm und drang ensues as the group continues to cross paths in the late 1960s. By this time, Four Friends has turned into little more than a dated soap opera.
Like the proverbial bad penny, Georgia has a knack for turning up at the most inopportune moments, leaving breakdowns, breakups, and tragedy in her wake. She comes across as an indiscriminate easy lay, first bed-hopping for the thrill of it and, later, only when it's to her advantage. Her treatment of David Levine, in particular, is unconscionable. Yes, the 1960s was the era of "free love," but Georgia's love doesn't come without cost and consequence to her partners. Halfway through the film, I began wondering if screenwriter Steve Tesich intended her to be a metaphor for catastrophe, delivering a kiss of death to anyone who dared to defy convention and challenge the status quo.
Four Friends is based on the semi-autobiographical recollections of Tesich, but don't expect the ebullience and optimism that was infused into his award-winning script for Breaking Away. Four Friends has a decidedly sad, pessimistic, and disturbing undercurrent that belies its characters' joie de vivre with a cautionary, almost remonstrative subtext. In his book, The Cinema of Loneliness, author Robert Phillip Kolker notes, "[Director] Penn had created the most despairing scenes of domestic collapse. Penn and Tesich enter the heart of dread. The little community at the end of the film is an almost necessary closure to the images of emptiness and incapacity, a confession of the inability to confront the enormous task of restructuring social relationships that can create such solitude."
In 1969, Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, The Chase) directed Alice's Restaurant, based on Arlo Guthrie's lengthy, troubadour-style song (also semi-autobiographic), a perennial Thanksgiving favorite played on classic rock radio stations, and that film delivers a more accurate scrutinization of the decade. Redolent with tangible nostalgia and scrupulously detailed in its portrayal of iconic characters confronted by social challenges and political issues, Alice's Restaurant serves as a more accurate barometer of the times and is, perhaps, the era's official capstone.
Tesich's attempted retrospect is closer to Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983) in which a clique from the 1960s reunites in the 1980s for the funeral of a friend. In Kasdan's film, however, the characters are able to contemplate and reconcile their past decisions and actions with the benefit of hindsight. But in Four Friends, both Tesich and Penn fail in their attempt to fuse the passions and ideals of one generation with the climate and attitude of another.
The trailer for Four Friends promotes a promising cast of "newcomers you can expect to see again!" Only Craig Wasson went on to fulfill that prediction, but his appearances in minor "B" flicks like A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and supporting roles in Spike Lee's Malcolm X tend to undermine his expected star potential. With her frozen wide-eyed expression and breathless line delivery, Jodi Thelen's vapid performance as Georgia makes one wonder what the boys in her life were attracted to. The other actors are either adequate or stereotypes in oblique and underwritten roles.
Riffs on Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" are obvious musical cues and are used as segues throughout the film. Danilo plays the tune on his wooden flute, then a piccolo, and finally on a clarinet. The soulful Ray Charles version is ever-present, along with a handful of other period songs such as "Shop Around" and "Blue Moon."
MGM's transfer is a good one, bolstering Ghislain Cloquet's evocative cinematography. Cloquet had also worked with Penn on Mickey One (1965), a film in desperate need of a DVD release. Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono renders both the dialogue and Elizabeth Swado's moody score crisp and clear. The only Extra is the original theatrical trailer.
I grew up during the 1960s and I do remember those years; but I found Four Friends too morose and negatively manipulative by limiting its focus toward the downside. For something more upbeat, check out Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers (1979), which was released with the tagline, "It was The Wanderers against the world…and the world never had a chance!"
Although I find the defendant's presentation questionable, I feel compelled to acknowledge the talent involved. Rather than declare a mistrial, I hereby acquit this case so I can retire to my chambers and listen to "Runaround Sue."
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