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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 5.56%
Pretty Bad: 33.33%
Total Crap: 11.11%

2 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Back Roads
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by Jack Sommersby

"Fine Star Chemistry Seals the Deal"
3 stars

One of those little-known '80s films that didn't exactly make much of a mark for itself but which emerges as a not-bad entertainment.

I can't rightfully aver that Back Roads is a particularly distinguished piece of work or that it's liable to brighten a particularly gloomy day, but on an undemanding level it works, rendering it a slightly recommendable production where the two charismatic stars, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, make just about all the difference. The story starts off in Mobile, Alabama, where Field's street hooker Amy Post crosses paths with Jones's two-bit hustler/sometimes-boxer Elmore Pratt -- he cons her into giving him a freebie, and feeling guilty afterward, tries to romance her into an actual social date; understandably, she initially pegs him as a deadbeat and wants nothing to do with him. However, after Elmo punches out a man unknown to him who's a plain-clothes vice cop fixing to bust Amy, the two, who have criminal records, blow town and take to the road hitch-hiking toward California. Suffice to say, they encounter their fair share of trouble along the way and, of course, slowly develop a genuine liking for one another. Obviously, this is far from strikingly original material, and it's a wonder not only why the same writers of the extraordinary Norma Rae penned it, but why Field and director Martin Ritt, both of whom contributed to that film as well, also lent their participation. The heavily-schematic screenplay is chock-full of contrivances that are more than a bit mechanical, and they're resolved way too neatly, like when a young Navy recruit gives the pair a ride and is instantly infatuated with Amy -- you just know it's just a matter of time before he finds out her illegal profession, is aghast over it, and leaves them behind. (Plus, anyone who's seen even five movies will know that it's Elmore who has to wind up with Amy before the closing credits start to roll.) There's a subplot involving Amy's dealings with a vicious female Hispanic pimp for working solo in her territory that's way too unpleasant in tone to mesh with the otherwise-genial feel of the proceedings. And what to make of a veteran filmmaker like Ritt displaying utter incompetence with his messy widescreen compositions where most of framing is with characters conversing smack-dab in the middle of the shot with no blocking on the sides and hardly any depth in the background? Adding insult to injury, there's some hand-held jitteriness to it that doesn't serve any visual purpose and keeps calling our attention to the film as such.

Given these shortcomings, it's nothing short of a miracle that Back Roads manages to keep its bearings enough to keep the rag-tag story afloat. (Yes, it barely manages this, but manages it nevertheless.) As usual, Ritt, as he superbly demonstrated in well-regarded tales Hud, Sounder and Conrack, knows how to texturize working-class Southern milieu with a wonderfully etched sense of dailiness rich in sweaty atmosphere that gives everything a you-are-there vitality that persuasively clings throughout. Not a single thing looks or feels as if it were created on a soundstage: seedy bars affixed with garish neon signs; crummy all-night diners with decrepit walls; cramped, uncomfortable seating in bus depots and the buses themselves; cheap, bare-bones motel rooms with nondescript furniture and a minimum of inviting colors in them. At the same time, Ritt doesn't really make a big deal of this -- he's not communicating that all this is unsuitably grungy, just a few shades down the interior-decor scale that poor people have long gotten used to. Perfectly complimenting this is sunny dialogue that's a lot more assured than the scene transitions. (Example: Pointing Amy to his uncomfortable half-sofa to sleep on, "You'll wake up feeling like a pregnant teenager.") The outskirts of the relationship between the two is cliched, yes, but there are some believable bumps along the way that jar loose some instances of character development, and they go down fine without the Odious alarm going off. And what performances! In the supporting ranks, David Keith, as the sailor, and Nell Carter, as a headstrong waitress who doesn't let a skipped-out-on check go unforgiven, are vivid in just a few minutes of screen time. As the lovable thug/lug Elmo, Jones takes a patchily written part and lends it both verity and charm while sidestepping any semblance of smugness. He manages to suggest a mature side in Elmo needing just the right opportunity to get out, but he doesn't telegraph or italicize it -- rather, he dexterously blends it in. As for Field, she's as sexy and appealing as the role calls for, and then some. When Amy is warned away from watching her now-adopted child at an elementary-school playground, Field deftly underplays the moment and elicits sadness without going maudlin on us; and she's not afraid of getting into Jones's face and amping up the tension factor and helping conjure up the necessary chemistry. They're superb, and while the film itself is far from that, it still makes for a perfect Saturday-afternoon viewing with lowered expectations.

Other Ritt-romance efforts worth seeing: the Arizona-set "Murphy's Romance" and the Rhode Island-set "Stanley & Iris".

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originally posted: 08/26/10 08:10:31
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User Comments

10/05/09 art AN EXCELLENT "RAINY DAY MOVIE". 3 stars
11/12/04 reggie any movie with sally field can't be all bad-worth a look 4 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby The material is lacking, but the locations and Jones keep you watching. 3 stars
8/16/02 KMG Tommy Lee Jones looks like Wolverine in this 3 stars
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  13-Mar-1981 (R)
  DVD: 03-May-2005



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