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CRITIC AT LARGE

Was Timing the Trouble With 'Tucker'?

September 01, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

When the official history of bad luck is written, it ought to include at least a footnote about Francis Coppola's "Tucker."

The movie was completed last February. But timing in movie matters is all important: the right time of year to show the particular kind of material, the right week when you aren't opening against two or four or 10 other major films.

Early August looked perfect for "Tucker," an ebullient celebration of the automobile, the family and the independent spirit. It has a hissable senatorial villain and various lesser villains; it has the pace of an Indy lap and a showy vindication as sunny as a summer morning.

But then the tumult over "The Last Temptation of Christ" erupted. Universal quite sensibly decided to rush its film (which was always a dubious proposition commercially) into release--on the very Friday of the carefully thought-out release of "Tucker."

"Tucker" received generally favorable and often very enthusiastic reviews. But in the cities where "Last Temptation" was also opening, the "Tucker" notices were placed, as they say in my trade, below the fold or on inside pages. And where "Last Temptation" wasn't opening, there was still enough news about the protests to overwhelm the movie pages.

It was quite enough to make a person believe in the devil.

Despite Paramount's generous $2-million ad budget, "Tucker" has faded fast. Audience reactions have been positive, but many of the mouths that generate word of mouth were clearly occupied elsewhere.

In the long run, "Tucker" is likely to come out all right; Coppola's films have all had long after-lives. And it may be that more than timing is at issue in the fact that "Tucker" has not been a blockbuster. But, if so, that is not cheering news for those who care about the movies, not in a summer when "Nightmare on Elm Street 4" dominates current grosses.

A cynical friend said that Coppola should have called it "Tucker II" or "Tucker III" and had a bloody wrench as the logo.

Maybe so. You do get the feeling that we have been in a long season of excess: mind-blowing dollops of sexuality, violence (campy and preposterous violence, but still violence) and low-brow humor.

But the box office is an imperative silver barometer, not to be ignored any more than David Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages, Einstein's formula for the conversion of matter into energy or Thorsten Veblen's economic theories of the leisure class. You seek the meaning, not the cure.

The movies are always essentially escapist fare. My theory has been that there are times the collective audience is more desperate to escape than at other times. The question in the summer of '88 is why now?

Why is "Nightmare" such a crossover hit, obviously reaching beyond the regular horror audience? Is it a safe escape from subtler and inescapable private anxieties? Possibly. Is it a jolting antidote to the blandness of a world that seems to offer neither commanding challenges nor really satisfying rewards? That, too. Is it just awfully well done for what it is? And that, too, is a possibility.

No observer in his sound mind expects "Cries and Whispers" or "Pascali's Island" to go dollar for dollar with, say, "Jaws" or even "Moonstruck." There are films aimed at wide audiences and those that will necessarily settle for a narrower audience.

But "Tucker," with its stellar performances, its visual pizazz and its enthronement of a go-getting American who built a better car, is by design an all-audience movie if there ever was one.

Yes, but where is the sex in "Tucker"? There is really only love--of man and car, man and wife, parents and children--seen boisterously rather than sentimentally. And, although there is suspense and conflict, where is the violence? In the story, as in history, the violence was mostly done to the justice system.

The worst kind of violence may be the abuse of power. You don't even have to make a fist. And the abuse of power is one of the things "Tucker" is about.

Now that the shouting about "Last Temptation" is trailing off into sensible discussions about its strengths and weaknesses, there may yet be time to catch up with "Tucker."

It is a popular entertainment, but it was made without high-calorie sex or violence. You would hate to think that that kind of recipe is no longer acceptable to the American taste.

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