“Cruise,” written and directed by Robert Siegel, is its own intoxicating brand of youth nostalgia film. It’s set in the outer boroughs of New York in 1987, and it’s every bit as fresh and authentic about the period as a movie like “Adventureland” was — it gets the big hair and the bangles, the mall-boutique “street” fashions and greasy-synth-pop optimism, the whole dressed-in-attitude vibe of kids who’ve had five years of MTV to model themselves on. But “Cruise” also feels like a 1980s movie. That may sound like a contradiction in terms: How can an ’80s nostalgia film be authentic if it’s also mining our affectionate kitsch memories of what the ’80s looked like at the multiplex?
The reason it’s not a contradiction is that Siegel, who wrote the superb screenplays for “The Wrestler” and “The Founder,” isn’t interested in microwaving John Hughes tropes. He has gone back and tapped into a richer vein of ’80s moviemaking: the supple and searching socio-romantic drama of films like “Diner” and “Baby, It’s You” and “The Flamingo Kid,” with a nod to the cock-of-the-walk street grit of “Saturday Night Fever” (which came out in 1977, but helped to set the stage for the New York glitter dream of the decade that followed). With “Cruise,” Siegel has made a bauble with soul, a small but exuberantly lived-in snapshot of an era that captures what life was like for the first generation to play out every moment as if it were being reflected in a pop-culture mirror.
The film’s enchantingly wily, more-layers-than-you-think quality is right there in its hero, Gio Fortunato (Spencer Boldman), who when we first see him registers as a classic (if not cliché) screen type: the working-class Italian-American dreamboat Casanova in his Brylcreem hair and white T-shirt. In “Cruise,” Spencer Boldman, with heartthrob eyes and a sidelong grin, comes off as ridiculously good-looking, like a genetic fusion of George Michael, Luke Perry, Colin Farrell, and the young Matt Dillon, and that’s just how Gio carries himself: as the rebel-stud king of the neighborhood. He’s a player, but he’s also a moody nobody who hangs out each night with his rat pack of two at the local diner — and yes, the diner setting has been done, but what matters is the tastiness of Siegel’s dialogue, whether he’s referencing the period pop detail (“Cookie Puss is not a cat!”) or having his characters debate the metaphysics of ordering a double cheeseburger deluxe with a side of disco fries again.
As we get to know Gio, we realize that his old-fashioned quality is at once touching and deceptive. He still lives with his immigrant Italian-American parents in Whitestone, Queens, and races his shiny black Buick Grand National, with its “Smokin’ Six” decal and 3.8 liter engine with fuel injection, along a drag strip every night (he always wins). At the same time, he’s a private if not quite introspective dude who seems to be straddling four eras at once. He’s James Dean, he’s Paul Le Mat in “American Graffiti,” he’s Tony Manero 10 years later, he’s a “Jersey Shore” guido 10 years too soon, and he’s a manicured ’80s white-boy hustler who says “yo” a lot. He’s also a reckless thief who rips stereo radios out of cars and doesn’t realize (the way the movie does) that he’s heading for oblivion.
Gio spends his nights hitting on local girls by cruising past them in his car, and that’s how he meets Francesca Russo (Emily Ratajkowski). She tells him she’s from Bay Ridge, and with her Roman nose and sensual lips, her pile of thick, dark curls, and her feminine stugots, she’s just the sort of guidette a guy like Gio was born to be with. She plays hard to get (but not too hard), and before long they’re grinding away in his front seat. So far, so classic. Except that Francesca, who carries herself like Italian-American hottie royalty, isn’t Francesca at all. She’s a nice Jewish girl from Great Neck named Jessica Weinberg.
Emily Ratajkowski is probably best known for being one of the models in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, but let me just say: She may be a movie star. She is that good. In “Cruise,” Ratajkowski is sparkling in her playful verve. She convinces you that Jessica is just the sort of college princess who would put on a bad-girl ethnic alter ego she learned from the movies and consider it a form of slumming that’s also a form of liberation. Once she’s revealed to be Jessica, the attraction between herself and Gio is still palpable (maybe more so). But the drama is: Can a privileged girl from Long Island who listens to New Order and wants to work at a gallery to discover “the next Basquiat” take a guy like this seriously? Or is she just having a summer fling with an Italian Stallion cliché? Or is it, in fact, her upscale new-wave art dream that she needs to outgrow?
The slyest aspect of “Cruise” is the way the film portrays its leader-of-the-pack sexual politics: as something that was standard back then but looks downright exotic now. Jessica rides along in a drag race with Gio, which gets her fear and adrenaline pumping, and that’s the moment she stops slumming. But it’s not until she learns that he’s a petty criminal and goes along with him to break into some cars, looking for the holy grail of a Nakamichi radio, that the danger of being with a true bad boy starts to kick in for real. That’s also when it starts to seem (maybe) like a less than perfect idea.
Boldman and Ratajkowski are superb together — they forge an opposite-sides-of-the-tracks connection that’s spry, soulful, forlorn, ambiguous. Ratajkowski cues us to see that Jessica is still playing a role (she wants to live, as they used to say in the ’80s, on the edge), but then so is Gio. He’s living an image out of the movies that he’s never bothered to question, because it works for him. He doesn’t dare to ask himself, What’s next?
Siegel has directed one previous film, “Big Fan” (2009), a deadpan character study that deconstructed American sports mania, and as he demonstrated in that movie he’s got a rare classical feel for pace and structure. “Cruise” unfolds with a gentle effervescence. When Gio and Jessica find a stash of cocaine in a car they’ve broken into, it’s just the ticket to rev the film up into a true ’80s party movie (without making the ripping off of a drug dealer look any easier than it is). Some may question the veracity of the ending, but going with it doesn’t mean that we’re signing off on this relationship forever. It just means that the characters have decided they don’t want the movie they’re living in to end. And maybe, the film suggests, that’s part of what love now is (and has been ever since the ’80s). By the time “Cruise” is over, you’re invested enough to want to see where this real-life fairy tale is going. You also want to see more Robert Siegel movies.