' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Fandango

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fandango

Garrison Keillor has spoken of the need for young people to get out there and make mistakes – many mistakes, and big mistakes too. He has spoken of the need to take chances and do some crazy things, regardless of the risk or potential outcome, because that, to quote the main character of “Fandango”, Kevin Reynolds’ 1985 feature film debut, “is a privilege of youth.” I thought of Keillor’s plea while watching “Fandango” because kids in 1971 staring down the prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam War were so often forced to negate their God-given right to get out there and make mistakes. It’s a notion that an idiot like me who has been afforded the blessing to make mistakes onto his mid-twenties and late-twenties and early-thirties and mid-thirties (argh! When will it end?!) will never be able to truly grasp. But it’s a notion on full display in the film and one that in many ways allows it to overcome its uneveness - is it a ridiculous comedy or a sentimental journey? - with both urgency and poignancy.


Set in the windswept dusty plains of the Lone Star State, “Fandango” finds Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner) all done up in an $18 tuxedo for the college graduation he did not attend on account of his failure to graduate. He heads an unthreatening, have-a-good-time gang called The Groovers. His second Lt. is Phil (Judd Nelson), straight-arrow (note the glasses), member of the ROTC and hell-bent in his own starchy way to go off to war. And off to war is exactly where Kenneth (Sam Robards) is going on account of his number coming up in the draft. This is why he has called off his wedding set to happen in a few day’s time, a fact which thrills the also just-drafted Gardner who rounds up Phil, Kenneth, Dorman (Chuck Bush), stoic, avid reader, aspiring minister (hint-hint) and Lester (Brian Cesak) who passes out in essentially the first scene and doesn’t come to until the end for a road trip – one final fandango, if you will. Destination: near the Mexican border where they plan to dig up their “old pal Dom.” Of course, the Mexican border might just mean a reprieve from undesired commitments.

Like any road trip worth its pricey gasoline, “Fandango” is stacked with misadventures, some for the sake of comedy, some for the sake of deeper meaning. The car breaks down, as it must, in the middle of nowhere, leading to a delightfully wrong-headed attempt to lasso the vehicle to a passing train. They forgo staying in a motel of a small Texas town and sleep under the stars on what they are told was the set where James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor filmed “Giant” (a desire to which my heart could totally relate). They fatefully happen upon a sign advertising parachuting lessons which leads to the worrywart Phil being goaded into a flight and jump with scene-stealing Marvin J. McIntyre as Truman Sparks. If your parachute instructor is toking up mid-flight, you might want to re-think things. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s more of a sage than any professor puffing out his chest on the UT campus. (I loved how the script brought him back around at a key moment.)


All the actors do respectable jobs but it is the young (well, the thirty year old) Costner who steals the show, if the lead actor of a film is technically eligible to “steal” the show. Employing the same southern accent he would several years later in “JFK” and employing costuming to great effect (the cowboys boots with the tux, the sunglasses he’s always removing and putting back on, like a running gag), he shapes a mischievous character – the straw that stirs the drink – that is always teetering on the edge of perhaps being unlikable but never quite getting there. And he does a miraculous job demonstrating subtly, essentially non-verbally, that he pushes and prods Phil to prepare him for a life in the army for which he quite clearly is not as prepared as he thinks he is. The performance in a word: charismatic. To see it for the first time now will make you see what people saw in him then and make you wonder where what you see in him then went.

“Fandango” resolves its story beneath the stars at a makeshift wedding (one question: is that how the bride always dreamed it would be?) but it does not necessarily resolve the stories of the characters. No, those are afforded their proper open endings, off to face the ravages of war and off to face the pressures of the pulpit and off to face……well, who knows what Gardner Barnes is off to face. He likely doesn’t even know. In fact, you can’t help but suspect he’s made a mistake – a big mistake. Good for him.

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