Bittersweet, funny, hip, and insightful, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Milos Forman’s first English-language movie offers a sly look at the Generation Gap in which both groups under investigation—counterculture kids and Establishment parents—are portrayed with dignity. Unlike most pictures of the same type, which opt for oh-the-humanity melodrama or us-vs.-them stridency, Taking Off tells a droll story about people trying to understand the life experiences of others, even as introspective odysseys reveal unexpected complexities. On some levels, the film is quite heady, and this aspect of Taking Off is maximized by Forman’s unique cinematic approach; as he did with such monumental later films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), Forman blends realism and stylization as effortlessly as he fuses comedy with drama. Yet on other levels, Taking Off works as a simple fish-out-of-water comedy, especially during scenes when nebbishy leading man Buck Henry illustrates the conundrum of average suburban Americans struggling to grasp the rhythms of the sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle.
Henry plays Larry Tyne, a straight-laced businessman living in an affluent suburb of New York City with his wife, Lynn (Lynn Carlin). When their teenaged daughter, Jeannie (Linnea Heacock), runs away from home, Larry searches the grungier sections of Manhattan, eventually encountering fellow befuddled suburbanite Margot (Georgia Engel), the parent of another teenager who “took off.” Margot introduces Larry and Lynn to a support group for parents in their unique situation, which leads to the film’s most amusing sequence—in the unlikely context of a hotel meeting room, a helpful young stoner (Vincent Schiavelli) provides reefers and coaches dozens of middle-aged straights on how to toke without bogarting.
While the main story of Taking Off is fairly strong, it’s clearly just a framework that Forman and his collaborators use to connect sketches and vignettes. For instance, running through the movie are clips of an audition for a musical, so periodically Forman cuts to some longhaired singer-songwriter playing a number that speaks to a counterculture-friendly theme. (Notables among the auditioners are future pop star Carly Simon and future Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates, appearing here as “Bobo Bates” and displaying a lovely singing voice.)
Forman cowrote the picture with a team including playwright John Guare, and the script consistently prioritizes nuance over mere plotting. Beyond simply cataloging the impossibilities of hippie-era Utopian dreams, as well as the constricting problems inherent to those stuck on the 9-to-5 rat race, Taking Off communicates the notion that everyone in the story is lost, to some degree or another. In fact, the title has a double meaning because Larry’s quest through the counterculture represents him “taking off” from his normal world, even though he finds liberation frightening.
Taking Off might ultimately be too slight, in terms of narrative, to earn a space in the counterculture-cinema pantheon, especially since the story is told only partially from the viewpoint of the Woodstock Generation. Nonetheless, in addition to marking Forman’s impressive transition from European to American filmmaking, Taking Off captures its time with unusual maturity, sensitivity, and wit.
Taking Off: RIGHT ON