Sometimes, more isn’t that groovy

For so many good movies, there are the unfortunate sequels. Oh sure, there are good sequels out there, but there’s also Predator 2, American Pie 2, or Eddie and The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives. And I’ve seen all three of those, so I know.

Anyway, in the grand scheme of things, most of those sequels are pretty much forgotten, relegated to late night runs on random cable channels that cannot afford quality movies, and I don’t think I would have known there was a sequel to American Graffiti if it hadn’t been pointed out to me via Charles Champlain’s book, George Lucas: The Creative Impulse when it came out in 1992. While it doesn’t get the attention of Star Wars, Empire, Jedi, or the original American Graffiti, More American Graffiti is covered halfway decently. In reading about the movie online and watching it last week, however, I get the feeling that this one is ranked in the Lucas filmography as “At least it’s not Howard the Duck.”

Okay, that’s a little harsh, but it wasn’t a movie that I intended seeking out and had I not been showing American Graffiti in my advanced English class, I would have been fine with watching bits and pieces of it here and there throughout the years whenever I happened to come across a random showing on WPIX or on cable. Plus, when I looked it up on Netflix, it was available for instant viewing.

American Graffiti, Lucas’s 1973 classic, follows a group of friends on the last night of the summer. What Lucas and director Bill Norton do is set More American Graffiti on four consecutive New Year’s Eves, from 1964-1967. After an initial scene in 1964 where several characters from the original meet at a racetrack, the storylines go their separate ways: John Milner is drag racing cars in 1964; Terry “The Toad” is in Vietnam; Debbie is a hippie in 1966 San Francisco; and Steve and Laurie are a married couple in Modesto in 1967.

The four characters are clearly disparate and the way each of their segments is shot obviously means to reflect that as well as reflect how disparate the 1960s were. Milner’s efforts to make a career out of drag racing are shot as if they’re from a hot rod movie; Terry’s time in ‘Nam has a grainy feel; Debbie’s life as a hippie uses an enormous amount of split screens and psychedelic effects reminiscent of Woodstock or Head (yeah, the Monkees’ movie); and Steve and Laurie’s challenge marriage that centers around her younger brother’s anti-war protest (that turns into a riot) is shot in a straightforward manner. It’s an interesting way to weave a narrative but it is ultimately the film’s fatal flaw because it took me completely out of the story.

Plus, it’s not a particularly well-written movie. Milner’s story is that of the very last day of his life (we knew this from the end of the first movie, as we knew that Terry would go MIA in ‘Nam), and while it’s a high point for the guy, it’s pretty ham-fisted. Terry’s story of trying to get himself out of Vietnam is supposed to be darkly humorous but we already had a movie and television version of M*A*S*H* at the time. Debbie’s story, where she’s a hippie who’s being taken advantage of by her deadbeat boyfriend, is ultimately boring. Steve and Laurie’s plotline tries to follow a couple breaking up and getting back together over her wanting a job, but it’s very heavy-handed.

But for what it’s worth, it’s not a terrible movie. Norton, who has had an extremely solid career as a TV director, handles each story well and tries to get us to follow along as best as we can, and he also does try to get the audience to feel like they are getting a good tour of the sixties over the course of the movie’s two hours. Plus, there are some nice touches here and there.

Steve and Laurie’s life is a mess, and their fight in the beginning of the movie over her wanting to work does get melodramatic, but Ron Howard and Cindy Williams do their best to make it seem natural. Plus, Howard sports a great comb-over and moustache. Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the twelve-year-old that Milner drove around with in the first film, has a minor part, running into Milner in 1964 before resurfacing in 1966 as “Rainbow” (in fact, Debbie makes a comment about how she always goes for the “Fifties types”). Terry spends the movie obviously having some sort of mental breakdown as a result of his experience in the war and even though it doesn’t always work, Charles Martin Smith does what he can with the script. Even two very minor characters from the first film show up, as Joe the Pharoah serves with Terry in Vietnam and Harrison Ford has a cameo as “Officer Falfa” when he busts Debbie’s boyfriend for marijuana possession.

But for a movie as wonderful as American Graffiti, even these nice touches don’t really measure up. Had More American Graffiti been better, it could have been the Empire Strikes Back of a coming-of-age trilogy. But it’s not and in all honesty, if you want a movie that feels like a more natural sequel to American Graffiti, rent The Big Chill, which was directed by Lucas protegé and Empire/Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. It’s a vibrant film with a vibrant cast and script.

Don’t shelve More American Graffiti completely, though, because in the very least it’s worth seeing once if you genuine felt something for the characters and are curious to find out what happened.

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