I’m not sure how you can honestly say you’re a fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s work if you don’t rank this right alongside the very best of his ’70s work. It’s easily the most personal film he ever made, and it’s also one of the most beautiful. Maybe part of the problem is that the film he made is simply too much for home video to handle. When the film came out, I worked at a theater that played it, and I saw it seven or eight times in the two weeks it played. That print was gorgeous, lush, like it was printed on candy. And on VHS, it looked terrible. On laserdisc, it looked better, but it wasn’t as vivid as that film print. On DVD, it’s a mess. A huge mess. I’m sort of amazed as I revisit the disc that it is a DVD print. It’s soft and the colors sort of bleed, and it just doesn’t look very good at all. It’s noisy. Here’s a film just begging for a gorgeous BluRay restoration and release, and maybe if the right person at Paramount Home Video reads this and realizes just what a gem they’re sitting on, it might get coughed up at some point. After all, the Warner Archives just made “Freebie and the Bean” available, so anything is possible.
Preston Tucker was an inventor, a salesman, a huckster, a family man, a crackpot, a criminal, and an inspiration, depending on who you talked to, and from the moment the film begins, it’s obvious that Coppola sees himself in this guy who is willing to risk everything, over and over and over again, in order to follow his dreams. This is the Coppola who hadn’t yet settled into the financial stability that he now finally deservedly enjoys. Coppola has gone bankrupt something like 347 times. I may be exaggerating, but not by much. And it’s because he bet on his art. I think Coppola’s a goddamn hero by example, and even if I don’t love everything he’s ever made, I love him. I love the way he talks about his own films and other people’s films and the way his passions plays out in his filmmaking. Jeff Bridges is playing about as far from Coppola as is physically possible, tall and chiseled and golden-hued, with the Norman Rockwell family spilling out of his Norman Rockwell house, but in terms of the way he pursues his dreams, they seem to be cut from identical cloth.
The film is big and theatrical and plastic, and I remember people criticizing the film for that when it was released. That’s the point, though. Tucker is a dreamer of a particular era, that post-war moment when everything was prefab and shiny and space age. His car that he designs is a Buck Rogers rocketship, sleek and spectacular. I can see why a car freak would fall in love with a Tucker, and why America went crazy for the promise of the car. In a way, this is also a cautionary tale about hype and what happens when you promise more than you’re eventually able to deliver. It can be crushing, especially if you believed the promises when you made them. Coppola made some terrible movies, but they were movies of enormous ambition. “The Cotton Club” wants to be great. It’s a movie that isn’t aiming at being “a good movie.” It’s aiming at something bigger, something amazing. And that sort of reach is what marks most of Coppola’s work. “Apocalypse Now” wouldn’t be what it is if Coppola hadn’t driven himself mad making it.
And although much of the movie is told like a big Art Deco cartoon, there are moments of darkness and eccentricity, and the best of them is an encounter with Howard Hughes in the middle of the night. Dean Stockwell shows up for one scene as Hughes, but he is unforgettable, haunted and crafty and disturbing. Everything you got about Hughes from “The Aviator,” you also got here. Stockwell makes that strong an impression, showing how Hughes hated when big business bullied the little guy, hated monopoly, how he could out-politic anyone, and how he was also openly mad. There’s also the great terrible scene late in the film where Martin Landau (who deserved his Oscar nomination) tries to quit so that he won’t damage Tucker in the upcoming trial. It’s so sad, and Landau just crumbles as a human being. “I caught your dreeeeams, Tucker.” Good god, it gets me every time.
I love the sequence where they reveal the car for the first time in public. It’s a beautifully staged bit of comic mayhem, but Jeff Bridges totally nails the real panic underneath. He’s just as good at turning on the hyper-charisma as he is at showing you the fear that he’s going to destroy his family, that they’re going to pay for his dream. Bridges is one of my favorite actors, a guy who I think is almost criminally underrated, and this is one of his best roles. He seems to be perfectly in tune with Coppola’s vision, and he sets a tone for the rest of the cast. Joan Allen is a creamy ’40s pin-up dream as Tucker’s wife, and there’s wonderful work in the film by Elias Koteas, Frederic Forrest, a young Christian Slater, Lloyd Bridges, and Mako, all shot exquisitely by Vittorio Storaro and scored with amazing energy by Joe Jackson. This is one of the best examples of Coppola putting it all together, working with the exact right collaborators, and it’s obvious that he truly has lived by the message of the movie, that it’s worth it to lay everything on the line for a dream, and if you get knocked down, just try again. Just knowing that he’s got a film in competition at Cannes this year, and that it’s something he made outside the system, makes me feel like the spirit of Tucker’s alive and well in one of the last of the ’70s mavericks who really means it.
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