Along with the conspiracy thriller and the downbeat character study, the road movie is among the genres that are most crucial to the story of American cinema during the ’70s. The concept of rootless nobodies forming surrogate families while traveling through the heartland says volumes about disaffected national identity in the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate. That’s why it’s tempting to cut a lot of slack for a picture along the lines of Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, even though the most objective critical assessment reveals Rafferty to be a travelogue of uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. The dignity and novelty of Rafferty and pieces of the same ilk can be found in the humdrum foibles of the unsophisticated characters. After all, some of the best New Hollywood movies broke new ground by giving voices to the voiceless. In other words, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins contains many small pleasures for fans of a certain type of scruffy ’70s movie—while those seeking big laughs, heroic characters, and a memorable storyline should look elsewhere.
Alan Arkin, working at the apex of his chilly oddness, stars as Rafferty, a former USMC gunnery sergeant now working a pointless job at a DMV office in Hollywood. Drinking heavily, living in squalor, treating his job contemptuously, and wallowing in regret after years of being a passenger in his own life, Rafferty is ready for a change. While on a lunch break one afternoon, he’s kidnapped at gunpoint by two drifters—grown-up Mac (Sally Kellerman) and teenaged Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips). The ladies demand that Rafferty drive them to New Orleans. Rafferty manages to escape, but he soon realizes that he doesn’t want to resume his old life, so he rejoins the women as a willing traveling companion. Escapades ensue. Most of what happens in Rafferty is contrived in the extreme, even though some moments of gentle character work reflect sensitivity and thoughtfulness on the part of the filmmakers. A long sequence set in Mac’s hometown, for instance, feels credible thanks to the parade of rural dreamers and schemers who interact with the protagonists.
Unfortunately, Arkin’s character never quite clicks as a believable human being, while Kellerman’s drifts in and out of realistic behavior. Grotesques played by Alex Rocco, Charles Martin Smith, and Harry Dean Stanton (who is especially wonderful here) resonate more strongly, perhaps because the filmmakers simply parachute into the lives of these low-rent fools for quick, purposeful vignettes. As for Phillips’ character, picture a second-rate version of the many precocious girls Jodie Foster played in ’70s movies, and you’re almost there—Phillips plays a one-note role well. From start to finish, writer John Kaye and director Dick Richards struggle to fill the movie’s slight 91-minute running time with a sufficient number of events, occasionally resorting to such filler as a chase scene and a musical number. Like the precious powder in its title, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins is so wispy that it’s forever at risk of blowing away.
Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins: FUNKY