August 18, 2011

The Outsiders

Another August, another movie in the outdoors. Last year it was Better Off Dead. This summer, thanks to Somerville's SomerMovie Fest, it's Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders!
Our protagonists are the youngest teens in a gang of "greaser" juvenile delinquents: alpha dog Patrick Swayze, loose cannon Matt Dillon, and goofball Emilio Estevez. When Johnny (Ralph Macchio) kills a "soc" in self-defense to save Ponyboy's life (C. Thomas Howell), they go on the run, literally jumping a freight out of town. While Johnny and Ponyboy hide out and dare to dream of escaping their fate in a world where greasers have nowhere to go...oh, hell, I am struggling not to quote Springsteen lyrics here.
Just listen to "Born To Run" while reading Romeo & Juliet, and you've got the gist.

The movie perfectly nails the melodramatic seriousness with which teens color their lives. "No one understands me", "I'm never going to make it out of here", "I just want to escape to where nobody knows me", these are common ideas for 14 year olds, and they take them deathly seriously. While it's true that Johnny did kill someone, he's living a nearly feral life with a complete absence of parents or a nurturing presence. He has no perspective on reality, and like any gang member, he believes that no one outside of the gang will ever believe in him. It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap, etc, etc...
Like an All-Star, big-budget Afterschool Special, The Outsiders pushes its points home way too hard. The syrupy music and treacly theme song (sung by Stevie Wonder) from Carmine Coppola are eye-rollingly bad. I also felt the pacing was really choppy. It's rare that I think a bad movie should be longer, but, at 91 minutes, the plot and characterization felt rushed.

The Outsiders is the cradle of the Brat Pack. It's almost distracting when nearly every role is filled with a movie star. Besides Macchio, Howell, Swayze, Dillon, and Estevez, Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe both have a few lines, Diane Lane is the good girl from the rich side of town, and Leif Garrett is alpha dog "soc".
C. Thomas Howell is probably the least famous of the Pack. He was one of the bicycle gang in E.T. the previous year, and after The Outsiders, he went on a run of high-profile features: Red Dawn, Secret Admirer, The Hitcher, and Soul Man. After that, he never lacked for work: he's appeared in nearly 100 movies, TV movies, and TV series...almost none of which I've ever heard of. Starting in 2009, he's portrayed an grizzled, graying alcoholic LAPD officer on the best cop drama on TV, Southland (right). He's 44 now, and looking lean and lined

As I discussed last week, I never saw this movie as a kid. I also never read S.E. Hinton's novels, maybe my school district didn't include them in the curriculum? Anyway, it's always interesting to contrast a fond nostalgic perspective (my wife and our friends Amy and Katherine) with my fresh view, especially for a movie aimed at adolescents. I'm not ready to close the book on this movie just yet. It's hardly ideal viewing conditions watching a movie on a scratchy DVD, sitting on a baseball infield, with barking dogs, killer mosquitoes, and a streetlamp in your eyes. It turns out the movie I saw IS too short: Coppolla has released a "Complete Novel" cut of the film on DVD. It's 22 minutes longer, with a different beginning, ending, and six Elvis Presley songs added to the soundtrack. Perhaps I'll give this one another shot. I'll do it for Johnny! (at Hodgkins Park, Somerville, with Emily, Amy, and Katherine)