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Two thumbs down on the steering wheel

August 09, 2007|PATT MORRISON

What can I say about the flick I saw over the weekend? It's a must-see movie.

I mean that literally. I had to watch it. And I had to take a quiz. It was that or get a couple of points on my driving record for speeding ... slightly. Oh please -- don't tell me you've never been there.

The film, "TakeHome Traffic School," is an oldie. Not a classic oldie like "Gone With the Wind" or "The Godfather." Just an oldie, which is all too obvious from the 1990s pleated pants worn by Paula Zahn in a cameo appearance and the dated information about how a blood alcohol level of .1% makes you legally drunk -- in California, it's .08%, which got dropped into "THTS" in a short, corrective clip. (Lindsay Lohan should do a cameo to make the point; more people would see that performance than her latest movie.)

Here's my review of "TakeHome Traffic School," produced by U.S. Interactive studios.

MPAA rating: PG-13. No coarse language or sexual content, but may not be appropriate for children under 13 -- why burden them with this too soon?

Total running time: about six agonizing hours, with flexible intermissions. Mercifully, no director's cut or bonus scenes on the DVD.

Screenplay: Too many writers. Besides, the "reality TV"-style first-person accounts from drivers, crash victims and cops, as well as the data-driven segments right out of the DMV handbook, proved to be more effective than scripted scenes. Nothing says character development like a drunk driver in the slammer.

Acting: "THTS" is hosted, in documentary anchorman style, by comedian Jeff Altman. His oeuvre was unknown to me, but I found him on YouTube, and much prefer his 1989 stand-up performance introduced by Rodney Dangerfield. Granted, it's hard to work orgasm shtick into a stiffly scripted defensive-driving film. Celebrity alert: Cameos by actors Tim Allen and Craig T. Nelson, talk-show host Phil Donahue and singer Barbara Mandrell. Soap star Deidre Hall talks safety while holding her infant son, who is now almost 15. It's time for a weepy Britney Spears testimonial about child safety seats to punch it up.

Directing: Allen Smithee would not put his name on this. How many times did we need to see Mack Sennett-like silent-film footage of Model Ts smashing into one another in what looked to be Edendale? Despite erratic pacing, jarring cuts and multiple plot lines, a number of crashes with Detroit-made vehicles were satisfyingly realistic, but a trailer for General Motors dropped in near the end of the film raised the question of product placement. A soporific, long segment about driving in snow and ice and made in 1995 needed an editor's firm hand.

This reviewer would have enjoyed seeing this subject in the hands of a documentarian like Michael Moore. I imagine him confronting errant motorists, demanding answers on why they aren't using their seat belts, or grilling them as they're pulled over for speeding or running red lights. In Ken Burns' hands, traffic safety cinema might begin with lingering shots of Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield, and then render excerpts from instructional asphalt-gore films such as "The Last Prom" in slow-mo sepia. The score would be a fugue-like "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" played on the theremin.

Apart from reestablishing an unstained driving record, what is the viewer's payoff of "THTS"? The filmmaker's message got muddied by the medium: I took 47 pages of notes through this -- 47 pages on stopping distances, rights of way, tire tread depth, hydroplaning and super-hydroplaning, ABS braking techniques. And what kind of questions was I asked after all that? "Did you see a tornado in this section?" "Was the young girl in the car shaking her fist or honking the horn?"

In the end, "THTS" was at least as determined to guarantee that the filmgoer didn't cheat or skimp on watching this marathon production as it was to impart a safe-driving message. It was the film equivalent of writing on the chalkboard 1,000 times, "I will not speed/cut off other drivers/run red lights."

The director did achieve something useful: Any viewer who plows through this once will take the pledge to drive more carefully -- if only to avoid having to watch it all over again.

Rating: 2 1/2 radials.


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