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MOVIE REVIEW : Andrei Codrescu Takes the Wry Road in 'Scholar'

August 13, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andrei Codrescu is a 47-year-old Romanian-born immigrant who has lived in America since he was 20. The author of 25 books and, since 1983, a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Codrescu has a wry take on America, but what keeps him from being a Romanian version of Yakov Smirnoff is a forlorn, poetic undercurrent. He's not a ranter.

In "Road Scholar," a documentary that follows Codrescu on a cross-country jaunt to many of his old haunts, including Detroit and San Francisco, we get to see Codrescu up close. He doesn't exactly overpower the camera. Rumply and a little squat, with thick round glasses, he sidles into his scenes almost apologetically. His principled reticence has a wait-and-see quality: He may look a bit blank but usually he's just biding his time until he takes everything in.

In "Road Scholar," which was directed and conceived by Roger Weisberg, Codrescu talks to a guard at the Statue of Liberty; a New Age channeler in Sante Fe; a roller-skating congregation--the Holy Rollers--in Chicago; poet Allen Ginsberg, whom Codrescu considers his mentor, and many other mavericks and marginals. Driving around the country in a red '68 Caddie convertible--he learned to drive for the occasion--Codrescu seems like a bemused interloper on a low-key crusade to root out the essence of American eccentricity.

Road movies are usually only as good as what you pick up along the road. "Road Scholar" (at the Nuart) doesn't try to be a De Tocquevillian panorama, and it doesn't opt for a "Frontline"-like bluntness, either. It's a wayward, wispy jaunt, and one's tolerance for it may depend on how willingly you buy into Codrescu's belief that the truest Americans are the most marginalized Americans.

It's an outsider's vision, and Codrescu signals his simpatico with these people by making them the centerpiece of his odyssey. He's cast himself as the immigrant who seems more clearly into the heart of America than the native-borns who take it all for granted. The film's free-form I-love-this-country tone is easy to accept because there's no rah-rah in it. It's patriotism cleansed of boosterism.

"Road Scholar" (Times-rated Family) would be better if Codrescu placed himself in more challenging situations; he doesn't risk much. Still, a lot of it is enjoyable as a complacent, oddball travelogue, and the filmmakers are careful not to condescend to the people we meet along the way. (The lack of condescension is what differentiates its tone from Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," to which it has been inaccurately compared.) You may not learn a whole lot more about America--or Codrescu--after seeing "Road Scholar" but the company is pleasant and so are the sights.

'Road Scholar'

A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release of a Public Policy production. Director Roger Weisberg. Producer Roger Weisberg. Cinematographer/co-director Jean de Segonzac. Editor Alan Miller. Music Wave Band Sound. Sound Scott Breindel, Mark Roy. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.

Times-rated: Family.

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