Saturday, June 10, 2023

#2,913. Goin' South (1978) - John Belushi Double Feature


Jack Nicholson both starred in and directed the 1978 comedy / western Goin’ South, and surrounded himself with a hell of a cast. Too bad he didn’t know what to do with them.

Standing on the gallows, moments away from being hanged as a horse thief, Henry Moon (Nicholson) is “claimed” by Julia Tate (Mary Steenbergen), who intends to make the outlaw her husband. Since the Civil War killed off most of the men in this Texas border town, a law has been on the books saying that any convict whose crimes fall short of murder could be chosen by - and immediately married to - a single woman. The situation doesn’t sit well with Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who not only wanted to see Moon swing, but also had his eye on Julia!

Grateful that she saved him from hanging, and smitten with her beauty, Moon believes he’s entered into the perfect arrangement. But Julia has other plans. Instead of wedded bliss, Moon is put to work in a potential gold mine that sits on his new wife’s property, and what’s more, is ordered to sleep in the barn. It’s Julia’s hope that they will strike gold before Mr. Polty (Gerald H. Reynolds), a top man with the railroad, runs her off her land.

Undeterred, Moon continues to put the moves on Julia, but the reappearance of his old gang (Jeff Morris, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwright and Tracey Walter), as well as a surprising turn of events, may ruin any chance he has of actually winning the heart of his new bride.

In addition to the actors listed above, John Belushi, fresh off his career-making role in Animal House, appears as Hector, a Mexican deputy; while Richard Bradford (as the sheriff), Ed Begley Jr. (as a former criminal who was also “saved” by marriage), and even Lin Shaye (as one of the ladies who showed interest in Moon before Julia did) turn up in minor roles.

It’s a fabulous collection of stars, but Goin’ South wasn’t the finest hour for any of them. Nicholson plays Moon far too broadly, and we understand why Julia seldom looks at him as anything more than a hired hand. He never once feels like a romantic lead, which makes the scenes in which Julia does cozy up to him unconvincing. Steenbergen, making her screen debut as the virginal Julia, fares slightly better (though as mentioned, she and Nicholson have no chemistry), while Lloyd’s hot-headed sheriff and Cartwright’s curly-haired outlaw steal their respective scenes (Cartwright plays Hermine, Moon’s former love interest, who is none too pleased he has shacked up with Julia). Alas, both DeVito and Belushi get little screen time, and are wasted in what could have otherwise been interesting roles. The issue with the characters filters down to the story as well, which never gels, feeling more like some interesting yet unrelated vignettes strung together haphazardly.

I don’t mean to dismiss Goin’ South completely. There are some good moments in the movie, including the hanging fiasco at the beginning as well as a fun scene in which Moon and Towfield sit down in a bar to have a chat. The setting is also pretty cool (the film was shot on-location in Durango, Mexico), and while their relationship mostly falls flat, Nicholson and Steenbergen don’t fumble it entirely (they have a few good scenes together in the mine, including one that begins with a freak hail storm).

But with this cast, and Nicholson at the helm, I was hoping for a lot more.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

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