“More American Graffiti” may be one of the most innovative and ambitious films of the last five years, but by no means is it one of the most successful. In trying to follow the success of George Lucas’ immensely popular 1973 hit, writer-director B.W.L. Norton overloads the sequel with four wholly different cinematic styles to carry forward the lives of “American Graffiti“‘s original cast. Initial returns should be very strong, on title lure alone, but repeat biz looks to be shallow.
While dazzling to the eye, the flirtation with split-screen, anamorphic, 16mm and 1:85 screen sizes does not justify itself in terms of the film’s content. What Norton and producer Howard Kazanjian are attempting, and what a variety of technicians pull off flawlessly, is daring, but ultimately pointless.
There’s a lot going on in “More American Graffiti,” as Norton takes the characters (minus a few exceptions) created by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and advances them two, three, four and five years into their future.
Paul Le Mat’s still rooted in the early ’60s, drag-racing and pursuing an Icelandic beauty (Anna Bjorn) with whom he’s no more successful in communicating than he was in the original with Mackenzie Phillips. Charles Martin Smith and Bo Hopkins are assigned to a helicopter unit in Vietnam while Candy Clark and Phillips have gone the flower power route in San Francisco. As expected, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams have married.
Part of Norton’s presumed goal, of course, is to show how the 1960s fractured and split apart, and that the cohesiveness that marked Lucas’ (and the participants’ lives) film is now dissipated, as characters branch out, and in some instances, are snuffed out.
But without a dramatic glue to hold the disparate story elements together, “Graffiti” is too disorganized for its own good, and the cross-cutting between different film styles only accentuates the problem.
Otherwise, Lucasfilm Ltd. Has amassed an extraordinary cast and crew that succeeds in almost snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The aural counterpoint via period recordings that virtually changed the conception of film soundtracks is again employed to excellent, if more downbeat, effect by music editor Gene Finley, supervising sound editor Ben Burt and re-recordists Bill Varney, Steve Maslow and Greg Landaker.
Work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and the optical coordinators Peter Donen and Bill Lindemann is extraordinary in meshing the four film sizes, which are beautifully handled in effortless segues. Especially noteworthy are the Vietnam sequences, filmed in Central California and almost as impressive as some of the “Apocalypse Now” footage.
Smith tops the performers as the likable klutz unable to get himself wounded and sent home even in the midst of the Vietnam War. Clark carries off her psychedelic scenes with panache and Howard and Williams sparkle as the young marrieds forced to confront a changing society.
Bjorn is terrif as Le Mat’s uncomprehending Venus, and Le Mat himself shows remarkable continuity in characterization, especially after a six-year layoff. Supporting players are uniformly well-chosen with Scott Glenn and Ralph Wilcox very good as rock band members. Mary Kay Place as Bjorn’s girlfriend and Ralph Place as Le Mat’s competitive buddy. Richard Dreyfuss, only cast principal not to return, is sorely missed but Harrison Ford shows up in an unbilled cameo as a motorcycle cop. Phillips, one of the first film’s most delightful characters, gets short shrift in this version.
Rest of the thesping and tech work is all more than acceptable but doesn’t help “More American Graffiti” offer conclusive proof that in the case of sequels less can be more.