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I guess I just like liking things

This is the first in a brand new feature, wherein Lyn finds DVDs in the $2 bin and watches them. When you love movies, you have to take the good with the bad, and we’ve opted to let Lyn take the bad.

"Oh look, there's America over there"

“Oh look, there’s America over there”

Jeff Bridges is “In Search of America”. I wouldn’t have thought America would be that hard to find, being a huge landmass. For those who actually live in America, finding it is surely a matter of looking out of the window and saying “Oh, there it is”. Not so Jeff Bridges, who is about to spend 74 minutes looking around for America. For better or worse, I’m going with him.

Produced in 1971 as a TV movie, “In Search Of America” promises me through a slighty hard to read font on the blurb that I will laugh, I will cry and I will want to join this family on their journey across America. The rest of the blurb just screams “Heartwarming” which has filled me with a sense of forboding. Nothing pleases me about a heartwarming movie, my heart is plenty warm enough.

There are spoilers in here, so if you had this one on your Christmas list, it might be best to stop reading now.

The opening scene brings us through an aerial view of suburbia with a funky group singing about magic buses and new ways to see the U.S.A. A family barbeque is in progress, with a “high tech contraption” providing the beef burgers. The inventor of this fabulous machine is Mike (Jeff Bridges) who is clearly a genius because he’s playing 3D Checkers with his grandmother, and nothing says “I’m amazingly intellegent” like 3D checkers.

Grandma knows Mike’s secret, and so do we (it’s on the DVD case). Despite his clear brilliance in the field of beating old ladies at board games and inventing barbeques that look a bit like radios, he’s dropped out of college. You see, the things Mike wants to learn “Aren’t in school now” and he’s just gotta “split”. It’s time he started dealing with himself and the world honestly. The family responds with predictable horror and dismay, and the beef burgers go cold. You’d think a genius would have included some kind of “Family crisis Beef Burger Warming” device. Then again you’d also think a genius could figure out how to button his shirt up, but the 1970s were a heady time of exposed chest regions.

Mike has to do a lot of shouting about hippy values and seeing the world for what it is, against his straight laced old man who just can’t understand. Straight laced fathers never do. “Right now man, we are miles apart” says Mike, with a perfectly straight face. “Come with me!” says Mike, leading into another slighty too long scene of Father Son conflict with loads of “can’t you dig it?” thrown around to prove Mike is totally and completely down with the kids.

In the space of about 2 minutes, Mike’s Understanding Mother becomes a raving opponent to the idea of travelling the country, while his Square Old Dad is all about driving around the place and washing his socks in streams. Or something. I couldn’t keep up. Grandma, who is clearly the only member of the family who can hold an opinion for more than half an hour, is totally up for adventure.

Mike buys himself a big old green bus, which the family gets to fixing up in a classic montage moment. The music is clearly original to the movie, because I don’t recall any major group having a hit with a song that goes “Hey Mister! Over here! Got a bus! Gunna take you for a lovely ride!”. I might be wrong, I hope I’m not.

The bus is duly fitted out with living arrangements, including an electric oven to sway Mike’s mother into loving it (Works every time, according to Mike’s dad, which begs the question of how many electric ovens he’s bought to keep the little lady happy). Nothing says “Dropping out of Society” quite like bringing your mother with you to do the cooking.

Mike’s taking them to visit friends, a trip that has apparently taken “a few days” and they’re all still smiling when they get off the bus at a rock festival. Proof that this is a fictional family. The hippies are swarming to a big field with the usual hippy things of playing guitars and, uh, wearing things on their heads.

The bus finds a group of clean cut hippies to park next to, and Mike is complemented on his groovy looking pad. Yes, he really is. I promise that line happened. This group of three men and two women are living beside the festival field in tents and a shack. They have managed to do this without getting a single smudge of dirt on them, and the ladies may have dropped out of society but they have yet to drop out of mascara.

They’re introduced to Kathy, who is blonde, cute and so deep. “Why are you Mike? Have you ever asked yourself that question?” The family is told they’re not in the way, because they don’t really exist. Although there’s a river right there, no one pushes her into it, instead striking up a conversation with the other hippies.

It turns out Kathy likes to sing. For what feels like 90 hours. At this point I would quite like to be pushed into a river myself, but then I remember sound carries through water so it’d be no help. Regardless of her “voice”, Mike is gazing at her adoringly. It’s 29 minutes in, so we’re probably due a love interest.

Mike’s parents are in the bus, worried about him and themselves and America and the state of the world. There’s no sign of Grandma, who is presumably off at the rock festival. Kathy lights a joint, adding to the list of worries for the “old folks” who are still hiding in the bus as though bears are wandering around. They’re also worried about Anne, who is heavily pregnant but refusing medical attention because “people have babies every day, man”.

Announcements are made at intervals to the festival crowd looking for a girl called Susan. Eventually Susan’s parents get up on stage to ask her to go to the hospital because she’s terribly sick. The camera zooms in on Kathy, who suddenly looks terribly sick. You see where I’m going with this.

I’d just like to point out that we’re now at the 40 minute mark and the “Journey across America” has stopped after a few days at a rock festival. If these people plan to actually do any “journeying” they’re going to have to break some speed limits. Unless of course it’s supposed to be a metaphorical journey, which would be irritating.

Back to the action. Mike and “Kathy” if that even is her real name which we know it isn’t, have managed to find a water hole devoid of other hippies and have a splash around in the water, followed with a reprise of the earlier song which is no better the second time around, although she seems to have developed the ability to accompany herself on guitar without actually having a guitar.

Mike ruins the smoochy moment by revealing he knows she’s Susan. Kathy pretends she isn’t Susan, but explains Susan has kidney issues and is on dialysis and ran away because it was a hang up and she had to split. Mike promises not to tell anyone, because it would break hippy code to actually try and help anyone or offer comfort to Susan’s parents in any way shape or form.

Anne goes into labor in the shack which is lovely and clean inside actually, and contains a lot more spare sheets than I would have expected. The parents (Susan’s parents have moved in to the bus) begin to fret, but Mike just dashes off looking for Susan because obviously she’s not sitting on her rock by the river. It’s hard to hide from your parents when they’re living in a bus next to your rock. She’s in their magical hippy-free clearing, collapsed on the ground in a lather of sweat. Two scenes ago she was fine, so I guess that’s what you get for confessing you’re ill.

While the baby is being born, Susan is hiding behind the shack. She begins to crash, and Mike panics, spilling her secret and calling her parents over. She’s airlifted to the hospital and hooked up to the machines she hated but now she’s decided she doesn’t mind anymore because no one in this stupid film keeps a consistent opinion about anything.

The festival is over, and everyone is heading off to their separate places. Mike wanders around the water hole looking like Susan died, which she didn’t. His family are now completely relaxed to the whole hippy deal and as the credits roll they drive off into the afternoon, not going home but going somewhere. I’m going to assume they got house sitters, because leaving a house empty for weeks on end is just poor form.

I can almost see what this film is trying to say. I think it was going for a “the world is changing, but there’s places for everyone if you just be a bit open minded”. What they ended up saying was “Hippies man, you know? Cool”.  Although the hippies were represented with the most consistency in character, those characters weren’t particularly likable most of the time. From painfully self conscious lecturing on “the way things are” to just plain being jerks, all of the main hippy characters wandered from “okay” to “irritating” and back again.

The performances are fine, Jeff Bridges is predictably very good with a rubbishy script, but the characters are so poorly defined and any character development feels convenient rather than genuine.  The only really consistent character in the whole thing is the Grandmother, and even she drops her “Everything is an adventure” persona in order to lecture the pregnant Anne on proper childbirth. The big deal about Mike being a genius (remember the radio barbecue if you will) was kind of wasted as it never came up again.

To be honest, I was expecting more road trip. I’m kind of disappointed they just stopped at some festival for the entire movie. Partly because it’s always fun (for me) to look at old movies like this and see what streetscapes were like, and partly because I think the writers could have said what they wanted to say a lot better with a bigger range of locations and people. The way it stands, only Mike’s parents really did any soul searching (or, indeed, America searching – though they were in America the whole time!), Mike didn’t have his new found hippy ideals challenged even a little bit. If someone did try to challenge him, he was able to make them fold in 10 seconds and come around to his way of thinking.

Did they find America? No. Neither did I. Did I laugh, cry and want to go on the trip with them? No, no and a world of no. Perhaps it’s a product of its time, and if I’d seen the movie when it came out I’d have enjoyed it more or found it more interesting.  It hasn’t aged well, and is not a classic.

If you’ve a burning desire to see the movie, it’s in bits on Youtube. It’s apparently Jeff Bridges’ first starring role, so it might be worth a watch for that alone, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Post review note: So as it turns out, the reason these guys only managed one stop on their wacky roadtrip through America was because this was intended as a TV Pilot and the producers were hoping to get a series out of it. I’m guessing it would have been like the Partridge Family but without quite so much singing.


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