Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Film Review: THE WANDERERS (1979, Philip Kaufman)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 117 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Karen Allen, Olympia Dukakis, Linda Manz (DAYS OF HEAVEN, GUMMO), Val Avery (FACES, THE ANDERSON TAPES, SHARKY'S MACHINE), Erland van Lidth (Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN and Fatty in ALONE IN THE DARK), Ken Wahl (FORT APACHE THE BRONX), Ken Foree (the lead black cop in the original DAWN OF THE DEAD).
Tag-lines: "It's 1963. Meet The Wanderers... They were the hottest guys in town."
Best one-liner(s): "It's a shame to see kids beatin' each other's brains out, especially when there's no financial advantage."

THE WANDERERS is quite an achievement. It continually combines disparate elements and moods with an epic, exquisitely flowing narrative: it's a gang movie, it's a coming-of-age drama, it's a sentimental comedy, and it's a serious art film.

It owes most of its success to Philip Kaufman's direction and adaptation (the screenplay was co-written with his wife, Rose). Like Oliver Stone, all of Kaufman's films deal with pivotal historical moments in one way or another, but he chooses to focus on the emotional and mystical ramifications of these events: Eastern European turmoil in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, an intimate look at the Marquis de Sade in QUILLS, the human face of the space program in THE RIGHT STUFF, post-Civil War frustration in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (which he adapted), or the hamfisted, lopsided-grinned righteousness the specter of Nazi evil inspires in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which he co-wrote). THE WANDERERS gets billed as sort of a 1960's-set WARRIORS, lulls you into complacency as an AMERICAN GRAFFITI-esque nostalgia comedy/drama, leaps headfirst into actual gang brutality, and ultimately ends with a reflective air of melancholy. As awesome as they are, the film's not about the endless, red-haired legions of murderous Irish toughs named 'The Ducky Boys.'

It's not about the fantastic, comprehensive soundtrack featuring music from 'The Shirelles,' 'The Four Seasons,' 'The Surfaris,' and a slew of others. It's not about the Baldies, the Wongs, gang brawls, football games, strip poker, or fishing for babes. It's about a mistake made by our hero before the the opening credits even roll, an error that cements his status in a culture of stagnancy, anchoring him to a world in decline, condemning him only to be a spectator and not a participant in the exciting and tumultuous youth movement of the 60's that is just beginning to raise its free-spirited head at the film's close. Five sobering stars.

-Sean Gill

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