Classic Review – American Graffiti (1973)

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by Armando Vanegas

Considered to be one of the most profitable movies of all time, George Lucas’ American Graffiti follows a group of Californian teenagers in 1962 on their last night of freedom before two of their friends, Curt and Steve, leave to go to college. The movie follows each friend and their own individual adventure as the night goes on.
One of the friends, Curt, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is a promising writer pondering his future while looking for a young woman in a T-Bird played by a young Suzanne Somers the night before he leaves for college. I always liked Dreyfuss as an actor and it’s interesting to see him so young. He seems to be really established despite not really being in that many movies at the time. There’s a charm about him and genuineness to his performance. Personally, I don’t care that much about him looking for this girl but his commitment makes me want to care more about it because he’s so optimistic about it. It’s interesting seeing him going from one car to another because if I was more outgoing, I’d probably do the same thing and it feel like mini adventures in between his main goal, all of which are entertaining to watch. The parts I enjoyed the most though is when he comes across the gang The Pharaohs, which is probably the best of his arc of the film. In any other movie, it would mark a sinister turn in the movie, but it’s played like it’s supposed to be fun like the rest of the movie. There’s just such a chill and down to earth feeling to it that I just almost wanted to be part of this gang myself because the gag leader is so charismatic. Also, it’s responsible for a really great car prank late into the film and I love a great car prank when I can get it.

Another friend, John Milner, played by Paul Le Mat, is supposed to be the guy with the fastest wheels in town and doesn’t seem to want anything more out of life than that. His car is really cool looking and I like the fact that he doesn’t care about anything but just driving around. He gets stuck with this girl Carol, played by Mackenzie Phillips, to babysit while Harrison Ford appears as a fellow driver named Bob Falfa, who wants to challenge John to a race over who might have the fastest car in town. As slight as that might sound for a plot point, it worked very effectively as Ford adds the right amount of menace to his role and proves that he can make an impression in his limited screen time. I think John was my favorite character when I watched this growing up about him just because he’s a slacker and I can relate to that in this time of my life. The idea of him not really wanting to growing up and make something of himself really resonates when you’re a kid and you’re still at that point where you don’t really want or need responsibilities yet. I remember having the biggest crush on Mackenzie Phillips in this movie and she’s actually pretty funny in this movie. She’s adorable and she makes for a good contrast to John. It gives the movie a road trip feeling despite that there’s one setting for the whole movie. John and Carol’s part in the movie might be my favorite part of the movie just because it seems to be the most fun to watch. Since John is a chill guy and doesn’t have as much of a concern for the future as the other characters, it gives his arc a more laid back feeling compared to the others, which is really saying something.

Terry the Toad, who’s the nerd of the group, is offered to watch Steve’s car for the night when he meets this blonde lady who he fools into thinking that it’s his car to impress her. This part is mostly crazy antics kind of stuff as Terry tries to lie to this woman to impress her. It’s not exactly new but it’s fun to watch nevertheless. Charles Martin Smith as Terry is convincing enough in his role. He’s pretty funny with his line deliveries and he seemed to fit the part both physically and emotionally. I did like how in this movie though that they don’t make him the butt of the joke or like his friends don’t give him crap because he’s not as cool as the other guys. There’s no idea of cliques, which seemed more realistic than a lot of high school movies I’ve seen. The movie does manage to show that he’s not cool and how he’s not like the other friends, which is effective. Like the rest of the movie, it seemed to have a very steady and laid-back pace to it. Candy Clark as Debbie, the blonde woman he spends most of the movie with, was really cute and she gives a really strong performance. I don’t know why this lady didn’t become a bigger deal because she’s really good. Something about her delivery is interesting to me because it feels more naturalistic compared to the other actors. Everyone gives great performances but she maybe is the one that feels the most loosest and comfortable in her role out of everyone. But that could also speak to the character as well as she seems to be very free spirited as the movie goes along and it communicates that idea of the character to the audience very well. Even though she comes off as dinghy at times, it does treat her like a real character and give her something to do and as I said her performance helps as it makes it a more and fleshed person. She just seemed like an all around fun character.

The Steve and Laurie storyline was probably the least interesting of all the storylines at least when I was a kid but I appreciate it more as I get older. I pretty much tuned out during these parts back then but it’s interesting to see how they interact with each other and how different they seem to be even though they look to be the ideal couple. Ron Howard and Cindy Williams are very believable in their roles and you could feel the trouble they were going through with their relationship as they don’t seem on the same page. It’s basic troubled relationship stuff but the performances are really great and they’re very believable like everyone else in the movie. It is weird seeing Ron Howard and Cindy Williams deal with such drama since the only other thing I knew of them prior to this was from Nick at Nite but they and the movie handles it well as that never really came to mind as I was watching it. This felt rather Blue Valentine-y at times but thankfully, not too much that it makes you too depressed.

I remember once saying that this movie was better than George Lucas’ Star Wars in my pre-I actually knew how to write reviews time and I guess I thought it was an edgy thing to say because I hadn’t actually seen this in quite some time at the time I wrote that. But looking back, I guess I enjoy it more but that’s not to say that Star Wars isn’t worth anything and you’re an idiot for not liking American Graffiti because I get it. Star Wars has a lot of things that blow up and the characters are more fun to follow so it’s understandable. But for me, this movie has always grabbed me in a way that Star Wars doesn’t and that’s not to say that yet again, you’re not allowed to like Star Wars. Star Wars is fun in its own way and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that I grew up watching this one a lot thanks to cable and my own VHS copy and thankfully, there’s a lot about it that holds up. I don’t know what is is about this movie. I think because of my mom, I’ve always had a thing for movies about real people just having conversations and dealing with real stuff in an earnest and honest way like any Cameron Crowe movie or most likely, a lot of high school/teen movies like this one. It shouldn’t work for me at all considering that I probably wasn’t the demographic for it at the time but I always feel like I’m transplanted to another place whenever I see this movie.

There’s a weird feeling of nostalgic even though I’ve never been to the place in this movie but it feels familiar in the best ways possible. The 1950’s looking 1960’s (which isn’t a flaw and probably has more to do with trends of the time) looks like an awesome place to live with the cares and the music and the characters and the drive-ins and the hot and hopefully untattooed women that are around. This movie makes me want to have a car and I probably should get on it at that some point. This movie really loves cars a lot and it manages to make them characters for the most part. The same can also be said about the soundtrack, which is amazing and a lot of the songs are still stuck in my head to this day. The Wolfman Jack stuff on the radio is also a lot of fun to listen as he seemed to be a narrator for the movie in a way. He also just has a fascinating voice worth listening to throughout the movie.

I cared about the actual living and breathing characters along the way thanks to the actors, who offer excellent performances to support them. There’s a raw feeling just because of the feel and the pacing of it thanks to writer and director George Lucas (who co-wrote with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz). He manages to find a way into these characters and it seems like he genuine cares about them as people as well as the world he and the rest of the filmmakers created around them, which he should as this is based on experiences of his life. All the different stories are engaging in their own way and I like movies where you can focus so many different characters at the same time. The structure of how it plays out is fascinating and it’s great that you care about everyone and everything to some extent. Also, this is a one night movie and those are always a lot of fun to watch. It’s well-written enough that everyone sounds like real people. It’s not particularly showy in its dialogue or its presentation but it works for this kind of movie. It’s an interesting movie for its time though and it seems to have aged well over time. It’s always a lot of fun to revisit this classic movie whenever I get the chance.
5 out of 5 hairpieces
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