Wednesday, October 11, 2017

1980 Week: A Small Circle of Friends

          While it’s in some ways a well-intentioned film about the worthy subject of how participating in civil disobedience as college students during the late ’60s impacted the students’ later lives, A Small Circle of Friends is a textbook example of Hollywood bludgeoning complex ideas into simplistic scenarios. A Small Circle of Friends mostly concerns a contrived romantic triangle. Nick Baxter (Jameson Parker) is a conservative golden boy pursuing a medical degree, Leonardo DaVinci Rizzo (Brad Davis) is a trouble-making lefty student journalist, and Jessica Bloom (Karen Allen) is the sensitive artist caught between them.
          Ezra Sacks’ story is sufficiently eventful and specific to avoid seeming completely trite, but his basic premise is so obvious—a clash between activism and conformity—that the movie becomes laughably schematic. Here’s a scene about drugs! Here’s a campus riot! Here’s a triumphant moment of sticking it to the uptight college power structure! Oh, and because you knew this was coming, here’s the tastefully understated ménage-a-trios scene! Sacks’ screenplay seems more like a to-do list than a proper narrative. Most of the picture unfolds on the rarified grounds of Harvard and Radcliffe. Nick sympathizes with the antiwar movement, but mostly remains focused on his studies. Leonardo is a wild child determined to change the world one article at a time. He’s also a brazen prankster, so during his introductory scene, he feigns blindness as a way of cutting in line while registering for classes. The idea is that Nick becomes fascinated by Leonardo’s zest for life, while Leonardo secretly respects Nick’s diligence. As for Jessica, she dates Leonardo first, then switches to Nick, and complications ensue.
         Just as Sacks’ script tends toward superficiality, Rob Cohen’s direction is impatient, as if he’s afraid of lingering on human emotion. Not helping to alleviate this problem are the leading men. Davis has a spacey quality, so he seems crazed rather than eccentric, and Parker is hopelessly bland. Allen is uminous, though she’s asked to spend far too much time gazing in wonder at her costars. (Actors playing smaller roles include Shelley Long and Daniel Stern.) Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the picture is the score, composed by rock songwriter Jim Steinman, best known for writing Meat Loaf’s hits. To date, this is the only movie he’s scored, and his music is hilariously overwrought. Some of the melodies are familiar, as well, because tunes he wrote for this movie later became Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

A Small Circle of Friends: FUNKY


Anonymous said...

You know, I'll agree with you that this is not a really exceptional film, but I'm somewhat fond of it regardless. First of all because Karen Allen was/is/always will be AMAZING. Even something as lamentable as "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is brightened by her presence. Secondly, I happened to watch this movie at a weird, transitional period of my life and I suppose the theme of how we can be really tight friends with people and then life sort of yanks us apart sort of resonated. Of course, my college experience was nothing like these characters and suffice it to say that the chances of me happening into someone from my past like Karen Allen who wants to catch up on old times are pretty much zero, but it's still a sentimental favorite.

Barry Miller said...

So....for a brief moment in Hollywood circa 1978-1979 there was this crazy notion that in the wake of Jimmy Carter's waning powers of influence that one Ted Kennedy might, just might, be the Democratic nominee, if not The President, in November of 1980....cue a massive psychedelic head rush in the minds of old hippies-turn-Seventies executives who went into a virtual swoon, if not a massive emotional paroxysm of late 60's nostalgia-cum-guilt trip of lost revolutionary ideals and relinquishment to bourgeois values and nice script reading jobs at Universal in Studio City.

Alas! "The Big Fix" with a post-Oscar Richard Dreyfuss in October 1978, and "Small Circle Of Friends" released a month before Ted Kennedy was a distant memory and one Ronald Reagan, nascent figurehead of the blossoming neo-conservative Republican Establishment, rose to power four weeks before John Lennon was murdered.

Needless to say, both "Big Fix" and "Small Circle Of Friends" died a quick death at the box office, regardless of whatever artistic qualities they may or may not have possessed. America's mood had changed radically (ha-ha), and it was a mood of dark and embittered cynicism that no longer had any room left in one's cold, cold heart for rancid flower-power memories of the past, and brooked no compassion for whatever sorrows may have remained in the Gucci-clad breasts of old rich liberals feeling sad and misty-eyed while driving home to their mansions in Beverly Hills. Even a towering masterpiece like "Apocalypse Now" was not immune to the syndrome of that moment: it never won the boatload of Oscars it deserved and only now is seen as one of the greatest films ever made.