Monday, August 12, 2013

California Dreaming (1979)

Directed by John D. Hancock
Starring Glynnis O'Connor, Seymour Cassel, Dorothy Tristan, Dennis Christopher, Tanya Roberts, Stacey Nelkin
Rated R

This uneven 1979 entry directed by John D. Hancock (Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly) might be superficially mistaken for a proto-teen sex comedy, although in reality California Dreaming is better regarded a late entry in American International Pictures prolific cycle of drive-in diversions of the era.

After all, there's a Porky's-style hole-in-the-wall bit of peek-a-boo...

...unlocked bathroom doors prefiguring a Fast Times at Ridgemont High-like mishap... other fast food-related innuendo.

But in truth California Dreaming harkens back more than looks ahead, with most of the usual elements of the AIP low-budgeted formula for which producer Samuel Z. Arkoff became known, including a downbeat tone that consistently makes its coming-of-age surface narrative read more ill-fated than is usually the case with such fare.

Dennis Christopher stars as Tony Thompson or "T.T." (as he insists others call him), with his unannounced arrival at a California beach town carrying us through the opening credit sequence.

Nebbish and naive -- and a pretty obvious Revenge of the Nerds precursor -- the tie-wearing T.T. marvels for a few moments at the surfers...

...then strikes up a conversation with gearhead Earl (Ned Wynn).

"Howdy pard," he begins. "T.T.'s the name. Just few in from the Windy City. Chi-town."

Earl rightly eyes T.T. warily, who goes on to explain he's arrived to "check out the scene," including hearing some "hot licks" at any area music spot, a switchblade comb awkwardly punctuating his request. Earl directs T.T. to the nearby nightspot, Duke's Vista del Mar.

"Copasetic!" says T.T. by way of thanks, and we all roll our eyes.

From there T.T. meets Duke Slusarski, played by vet character actor Seymour Cassel. He explains to the bar owner how his trip to the west coast in a way posthumously fulfills a wish of sorts made by his deceased brother, a trumpet player whose records T.T. carries.

Taking pity on T.T., Duke plays his brother's records in the bar and even offers him a free room in the apartment where he lives with his stepdaughter, Corky, played by Glynnis O'Connor (Ode to Billy Joe, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble).

A main plot proceeds from there involving the hopelessly nerdy T.T. trying to fit into the surfer scene, with Corky less than pleased about her summer fun being disrupted by this new, uncool roommate.

Meawhile, a handful of subplots emerge involving the ensemble cast to help keep the viewer suitably distracted and more or less entertained.

One involves the surfers -- Rick (John Calvin), Mike (Jimmy Van Patten), and Tenner (Johnny Fain) -- and their competitive efforts both to get laid and win surfing competitions.

Another concerns Stephanie, played by the alluring Tanya Roberts in an early post-Zuma Beach, pre-Sheena role. While not hanging out with her friend Marsha, played by the equally charming Stacey Nelkin (Up the Academy, Get Crazy), Stephanie tries to come to terms with her rocky relationship with the often-douchey Rick who is more interested with getting drunk, scoring with other babes, and besting the gnarly waves than her.

A third plot involves the aforementioned Earl, his girl Corrine (played by National Lampoon alum Alice Playten), and the slimy, rich Jordy (Todd Susman) who pines after Corrine.

Earl's admiration of Jordy's Corvette inspires the latter to challenge him to a bet. If Earl can stay in his own car for the entire six weeks until Labor Day, the two will swap vehicles. Earl agrees to the bet with enthusiasm, but it's clear from the start it's all a ruse to allow Jordy to make time with Corrine.

Still another subplot involves Duke coming to terms with getting older while negotiating a broken relationship with his ex-wife Fay (Dorothy Tristan).

Finally, like T.T., Corky -- referred to by others early on as the "virgin princess" -- is also experiencing a kind of "coming of age" during her final summer before going off to school. And perhaps unsurprisingly the paths of the two ultimately converge before all is said and done.

As mentioned, while there are several light moments scattered throughout there's a fairly consistent summer-can't-last-forever gloom hanging over all of the hijinks, which depending on your point of view either gives the film and a couple of the characters more depth or just serves as an occasional buzz-kill to what are otherwise good times with few hassles.

Appearing here just prior to his Breaking Away breakout, Christopher is mostly over-the-top as goofy T.T. -- almost to the point of being cartoonish.

Somehow, though, T.T. is endearing enough to keep the viewer caring about his fate, perhaps made more so once the surfer dudes, Duke, and others seem to adopt them into their beachfront brotherhood, helping him fit in with surfing lessons and help with the ladies. Duke in particular believes the key to improving the kid's love life is to learn volleyball, a game that uniquely offers training in both "strength and sensitivity."

As T.T.'s story plays out the other subplots all are resolved as well, some in surprising ways with the possibility of happy endings never quite guaranteed. Interestingly, for many of the characters' stories the prospect of going to Hawaii weirdly exists as a kind of ultimate goal -- a paradise all chase (and perhaps an allusion to the film's title, borrowed from the Mamas and the Papas) -- although the film ultimately seems to assign a kind of futility to such dreaming, too.

Perhaps that's the biggest difference between these earlier drive-in titles (many of which like California Dreaming became late-night staples on early cable TV) and the teen sex comedies that became box office-winners of the next decade -- namely, the possibility of the negative outcomes for stories and/or characters.

In any case, California Dreaming provides a few laughs along with some mildly risque fun in the sun for fans of both categories of films.

- Triple S

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