Perhaps more than any other American movie released in 1980, Serial makes an appropriate cinematic headstone for the ’70s, meaning the spiritual ethos of that wild decade rather than the chronological decade itself. Set in California’s Marin County, that affluent enclave long maligned as a nesting place for privileged white folks with a weakness for cultural fads, Serial concerns a character who’s sick to death of people talking about feelings and self-realization and social issues, because what he really craves is the Eisenhower-era ideal of a secure career and a stable home. This dude dug getting his rocks off during the anything-goes ’70s, and he’s hip enough to grasp why his daughter joins a cult and why his best friend becomes a swinger, but when consciousness-raising compels his wife to seek meaning outside the home, enough is enough. Like the disappointed boomers whom Lawrence Kasdan depicted so sharply thee years later in The Big Chill (1983), the nominal hero of Serial is a man for whom the ’70s left a bittersweet aftertaste.
Based on a novel by Cyra McFadden, Serial has more in the way of concepts and themes than it does in the way of narrative clarity. Although the picture ostensibly tracks the adventures of businessman Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull), it’s really more of an ensemble piece. Similarly, although the picture fares best when it cruises along with verbal satire, director Bill Persky and his collaborators unwisely attempt laugh-out-loud farce at many points, such as the hellzapoppin climax. That stuff falls flat more often than not, and the chaos it creates adds to the sense that Serial is an unwieldy mess. After all, the movie involves gay romantic drama, a motorcycle gang, myriad sexual affairs, a suicide, and many other things. Will the real Serial stand up? And for that matter, does the title, which was extrapolated from the source material, really make sense given how the story evolved during the transition from one medium to another? Oh, well.
Its discombobulated nature aside, Serial contains some wonderful stuff. Mull slays with his signature deadpan delivery, and his rendering of the line “I’m going to love-bomb the shit out of them” is priceless. The name of the movie’s cult, the Church of Oriental Christian Harmony, is a fabulous one-liner. Costar Sally Kellerman’s remark, “I want to talk about how I’m having trouble talking about it,” captures the ridiculous extremes of the Me Decade, as does the bit when Tuesday Weld, as the wife of Mull’s character, castigates Harvey for daring to criticize their daughter in front of friends: “Do you know what you’ve done to her peer-group dynamics?” Mention should also be made of Tom Smothers’ droll supporting performance as a hippy-dippy clergyman, as well as Bill Macy’s fine work portraying the hero’s confused pal. Alas, there’s a lot of stuff in Serial that is the opposite of wonderful. Christopher Lee is horribly miscast, and the portrayal of gay characters is grossly dehumanizing. Whether the good outweighs the bad is a highly subjective matter.