Written by: Norman Wexler
Directed by: John Badham
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Gorney, Donna Pescow, Martin Shakar
- Deleted scenes
- Director’s commentary
- Highlights from VH-1 “Behind the Music” episode
Released by: Paramount
My Advice: Skip it unless you miss the 70s and need to remember why you shouldn’t, or you were born after 1980.
Warning: This film contains scenes of rape and heavy drug use.
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The acting is better than you might expect. Travolta is a legitimately good dancer, but his character is also both Brooklyn and stupid–two things Travolta himself is not. With the characterization the script gives him, he does a wonderful job at making an uneducated moron seem redeemable, if not someone you really want to know. The secondary characters as his friends are uniformly irritating and callous, with the exception of Bobby C–who has, of course, gotten his girlfriend pregnant–and Donna Pescow as Annette, the desperate, doomed girlfriend. Martin Shakar as the conflicted priest-brother Frank is also quite good, and it’s a shame that we don’t see more of him. Watch for a brief Fran Drescher cameo.
The plot, unfortunately, doesn’t quite make use of the acting talent. Travolta’s character is so uneven and unlikable that his victories are hollow and his struggles are almost justice. What could have been a true monument to escaping horrible situations or even a study of the effects of Brooklyn on character is instead just lukewarm. There seem to be a few things the film is trying to be: a look a underachievers, the importance of goals, the redeeming quality of love, warnings against drugs or self-centeredness–but viewers have to look rather hard to find much of this or draw any use out of such themes, as they are never resolved or completed. The potentially interesting and useful character of Frank, for example, the hero’s brother who quits the priesthood mid-movie, is basically just dropped just when he could have done something for the plot.
Referred to as an “urban tragedy,” you expect a certain amount of grittiness in the plot. You might not, however, expect friends of the hero to perpetuate a rape in the back seat of a car where the hero is sitting, nor expect the hero to then turn and blame the girl. While the rape itself is certainly a caution against using drugs or alcohol, it just doesn’t quite make the hero much of a hero, yet the rest of the film fights against making him a real anti-hero. He’s just inconsistent and conflicted; I’m not sure why a frequently selfish and shallow fool is supposed to interest filmgoers or what purpose in the film he is meant to serve. His inevitable success is less moving than it should have been because many of his life struggles are his own fault–not things he overcomes. He seems to have the potential to be more than what he is, but never really moves to improve, except perhaps in the last few seconds of the film–and even that is debatable.
The production values are solid enough; the filming, choreography, and character design are interesting, if not inspired or groundbreaking. The audio and video quality of the disc are quite good overall.
The features list is nice: we get highlights from a VH1 special on the film, though it’s not clear why we only get “highlights.” There is also a commentary with the director, but it sheds little light on some of the questionable directing and script choices. Fans of the movie or the music, however, should enjoy this addition, and it’s always nice to see a commentary.
As an environmentalist, I laud the use of the biodegradable, but similarly sturdy cardboard cases. A step above the flimsy, cheap cases that some producers use for their throwaway releases but without the false security of the full-plastic cases, these allow discs to be protected, but a bit less expensive. Now if only companies would use all-recycled papers and soy inks, we’d be in good shape.
All in all, it’s a fun enough film when there’s nothing else on, and it’s one of those films that merely demonstrates cultural literacy. If you were born too late to have “enjoyed” the 70s with its horrible fashions, then you should check this out if only to educate yourself of the dangers of drug use–do you think they would have worn that while sober? If, on the other hand, you remember roller-skating with fondness, as I do, you might want to revel in nostalgia for a bit and give this a watch. It’s just a shame that Saturday Night Fever, like Tony, never quite fulfills its potential and becomes something more than barely mediocre.