Saturday, June 17, 2023

#2,914. Old Boyfriends (1979) - John Belushi Double Feature


Old Boyfriends has quite a pedigree. With a script co-written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and his brother Leonard, this 1979 film also marked the sole directorial effort of Joan Tewkesbury, longtime collaborator of Robert Altman’s. Tewkesbury was script supervisor on the excellent McCabe & Mrs. Miller before penning the screenplays for Thieves Like Us and Nashville.

And true to form, Old Boyfriends features characteristics of both a gritty Paul Schrader film and a star-studded Robert Altman picture.

California psychologist Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire) goes on a road trip to reconnect with the boyfriends of her past, starting with college sweetheart Jeff Turin (Richard Jordan), who directs commercials for a living. Before long, Dianne and Jeff have rekindled their romance, but just when things seem to be getting serious between the two, Dianne sneaks away and hits the road again.

This time, she is seeking out high school boyfriend Eric Katz (John Belushi), owner of a formal wear business who doubles as a lounge singer. From there, Dianne heads to a small town in Michigan to reunite with her grade school boyfriend, only to be informed by his younger brother Wayne (Keith Carradine) that her old flame was killed a decade earlier in Vietnam.

Dianne learns from the boys’ mother (Bethel Leslie) that, ever since his older brother’s death, Wayne has withdrawn from the world. Dianne offers to help Wayne any way she can, but is she in the right state of mind to take on such a challenge?

Following a cryptic opening scene, in which a car careens out of control and smashes into a concrete wall (an event that isn’t explained until late in the film), we join Dianne already on her journey, and though she is clearly the lead of Old Boyfriends, Shire plays the character very close to the vest, making her an enigma whose motivations remain a mystery through much of the movie.

Why is she seeking out her former boyfriends?  My initial thought, especially during her rendezvous with Jeff, was that Dianne wanted to see if any sparks remained between she and them, but when she abandons Jeff (wonderfully played by Richard Jordan), with whom she had, indeed, become romantically involved again, to instead visit Eric, a guy who humiliated her in high school, Dianne’s reasons, indeed her very mental state, become suspect.

Jeff, not wanting to lose Dianne again, hires a private investigator, played by Buck Henry, to track her down. It is only through Jeff’s delving into Dianne’s life (scenes that are crosscut with those of Dianne on the road) that we understand her motives.

Like many of Schrader’s films, Old Boyfriends treads into some dark territory, including revenge and mental illness, and does so in a way that can, at times, be jarring. That said, I feel it was Tewkesbury’s collaborations with Robert Altman that had the biggest impact on this movie, namely the film’s all-star cast, and how every single performer gets their moment in the sun, regardless of how small the part. Buck Henry’s single scene as the investigator proves more than a simple cameo; he flirts with his secretary (Brenda King), leading us to believe their relationship goes well beyond business. Also turning up briefly are Gerrit Graham (as a hapless actor in one of Jeff’s commercials), John Houseman (as a stuffy psychiatrist), and P.J. Soles, playing a very small but significant part towards the end of the movie. Even John Belushi’s Eric, easily the film’s most loathsome character, gets to belt out a few tunes, including Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which Belushi would also sing a year later in The Blues Brothers.

An occasionally bleak film with a perplexing lead that also works as a vehicle for its ensemble cast, Old Boyfriends proved a fascinating merger of Schrader and Altman, and is a movie well worth checking out.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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