Two terrifically appealing performers, William McNamara and Erika Eleniak, occupy the center of “Girl in the Cadillac,” an amiable, albeit slight and derivative, variation on the perennial theme of “Love on the Run.” Pic’s abundant charm and generous heart, which triumph over incongruous characterization and a pandering finale, will facilitate theatrical distribution and support from young viewers.
Though loosely adapted from a Depression-era James M. Cain novella, “Girl in the Cadillac” owes more to such youth-angst pictures as “Rebel Without a Cause” and romantic road movies like “Bonnie and Clyde,””Badlands” and, most recently, “Guncrazy.”
Amanda (Mandy) Baker (Eleniak) is a 17-year-old free spirit seeking an adventure that will liberate her from an unfulfilling life in the suffocating small town of Paint Rock, Texas. She lives with her mother, Tilly (Valerie Perrine), who out of her own desperation leaves Lamar (William Shockley), her thug of a b.f., and marries Ben (Ed Lauter), an older rich man who promises to provide a better life for her and Mandy.
At the bus station, setting out for Corpus Cristi, Mandy meets Rick Davis (McNamara), a handsome if somewhat arrogant cowboy who thinks he’s smart and sexy. Out of naive curiosity, Mandy lends him $ 17 for a one-way ticket to Utopia, a layover stop.
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In Utopia, Rick introduces Mandy to his “Uncle” Pal (Michael Lerner), a failed crook, and Bud (Bud Cort), his weird sidekick. It doesn’t take long before Mandy is talked into participating in a bank robbery for a tidy sum of $ 5,000. When the heist turns into a fiasco, Rick and Mandy manage to escape with all the loot, but Pal and Bud follow in hot pursuit.
Pic’s central — and best — episodes are those describing the delirious couple on a shopping spree, checking in at a lush hotel, buying a red convertible Cadillac — living the good life.
Problem is that writer John Warren, who collaborated on the script of “Naked in New York,” lacks a clear conception of his characters and, worse, doesn’t know how to end his tale. As a “solution,” he conjures up a bunch of worn cliches that betray the intent of his narrative.
Indeed, Warren can’t decide how “bad” his protagonists are, even if it’s clear they are not the criminal type. Despite macho bravado and a dash of kleptomania, Rick is basically a good boy. Nor is the nature of the heroes’ rebellion or angst explained; what Rick and Mandy seem to enjoy most is buying fancy clothes and parading around in them.
Fortunately, script’s shortcomings are winningly camouflaged by helmer Lucas Platt, who makes an impressive feature debut after working on a number of documentaries with Jonathan Demme (“Cousin Bobby,””Secrets From the Dolly Madison Room”).
Keeping the movie lightweight, even when the writing is heavy-handed, Platt shows affection for his characters. He evinces taste and skill in staging the story’s varying incidents and in controlling the physical movement of his players, particularly McNamara.
Though looking older than 17, Eleniak acquits herself with a convincing performance — no minor achievement, considering her character begins as a modern-day Lolita and within days evolves into a responsible, mature woman.
Ultimately, though, the film’s revelation is McNamara, who looks and even acts a bit like Brad Pitt. Carrying off his cowboy role with physical exuberance and verbal charm, McNamara sparkles, keeping the movie afloat even in its weaker moments. McNamara and Eleniak were first paired in last year’s woeful “Chasers,” so this reps a major about-face for them.
Tech credits of low-budgeter are proficient on all levels, with lenser Nancy Schreiber in top form. Her impressive long shots convey the vastness of the land , so important in a road movie, and her sensuous camera contributes immeasurably to pic’s sexual allure.