American Graffiti and Animal House

These two movies have a lot in common. Both are set in 1962, though one feels more like 1957 and the other like 1972. Both are coming-of-age stories featuring teenagers on the cusp of the college experience, rapidly losing their innocence but not their cheerfulness. Both place a luxurious classic car, borrowed from a brother or a best friend, in great danger as a major plot point. Both feature lots of period music, some of it gorgeous, some of it corny. Both are heavily, even primarily concerned with getting their male protagonists laid or the next best thing. Though the females are appealingly spunky and game for almost as much mischief as the boys, they are firmly regarded as secondary characters; the ending montage of “so-and-so went on to do such-and-such” title cards — also a feature of both movies — excludes almost all the women. Weirdly, both movies have the most likeable male character become the object of a 13-year-old girl’s affections (and it’s implied in one of them — guess which — that he takes her virginity). The remaining similarities are summed up in the fact that both movies were written at least in part as nostalgia pieces recalling the events and atmospheres of the writers’ youth. So of course the adults are bumbling when they’re not actually morally dubious; of course there are pranks and mayhem aplenty; of course there’s underage drinking, scary people from the other side of the tracks, and all the rest.

One more thing they both have in common is that they will no longer be free on Amazon Prime after today, which is why I watched them back-to-back in the space of two days.

I felt as though I should have liked the freewheeling, devil-may-care, amoral, slapstick Animal House a bit better than the more buttoned-down, sentimental, choreographed American Graffiti, but maybe it was that very expectation that led me to feel the reverse. Lucas’s ode to drive-in diners, cruising, drag racing, and figuring out what you really want out of life was a surprisingly appealing watch. The constant soundtrack worked perfectly. The shots were gorgeous in composition and color, the acting guileless and natural. If everyone was just a little too domesticated and prim, including the street gang, well, fine. And it’s hard not to like a movie where absolutely everything is either “bitchin'” or “boss.” I have to figure John Hughes really paid attention to this movie.

Animal House, on the other hand…well, mainly it just felt uneven, half-finished. No one is very domesticated or prim — maybe the rich rival frat? kinda? — but it’s hard to get a handle on what they’re like because everyone is such a caricature. Presumably we’re supposed to root against the Dean and the fascists running the rich frat, but from all the evidence we can see the Delta Chi house really is full of barely redeemable reprobates. They’re slobs, of course; they spend almost no time in class if their grades are anything to judge by; they don’t respect women any more than your average stereotypical frat (at least new pledge Tom Hulce listens to the angel on his shoulder who tells him not to fondle the girl who passed out after stripping off her bra, prompting the devil on his other shoulder to call him “you homo!”); they love black music but are afraid of black people (knowing that the scene where the “menacing” black men “steal” the boys’ white dates got Richard Pryor’s stamp of approval doesn’t make it much more comfortable to watch in 2016); they have no respect for other people’s property; they’re not even particularly charitable or kind to anyone unless they have something to gain by it. They admit the “wimp” (Tom Hulce) and the “blimp” (Stephen Furst) to their ranks not because they welcome and embrace outsiders (see Revenge of the Nerds) but because they need the money and don’t care enough to say no. We like these guys, but mainly because their opponents are so cartoonishly malevolent and dysfunctional (I kept expecting another gay joke about the frat brother who stays limp during handjobs from two separate girls, but apparently it’s just an impotence joke), and because we’re privy to their mental states. If American Graffiti led to Sixteen Candles, this must have led to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, another film about a kid who is actually kind of an asshole but who is appealing only because he talks to us the most and because he has the innocent face of Matthew Broderick.

Animal House ends weirdly, with what is supposed to look like a grand Rube Goldbergian reiteration of the theme “don’t get mad, get even,” but mainly ends up looking like a desperate mess. The revenge of the Animals turns out to be a series of slapstick gags, each stunt somehow more pointless than the last. You don’t wonder how they planned it so much as why; it doesn’t accomplish anything from a plot point of view and they can’t even get out of it comedically without a series of freeze-frames for the title cards. It’s just a big chaotic “ta-da!” punchline for a movie that up to that point seemed to be headed for some kind of narrative climax.

It all makes sense, though, when I consider that John Landis directed this. I had the same problem with the abrupt ending and uneven tone of American Werewolf in London, and I had the same trouble seeing what everyone loved so much about Blues Brothers. Neither of those films really does as much for me as they seem to do for their fans (though some of the Werewolf sequences are really haunting), so I dunno — maybe Landis and I just don’t mix.

And, really, I suspect both movies are better than the one I was about to watch before I noticed they’d be unavailable soon: The Da Vinci Code. I know it’s gonna be bad: the question is whether it’ll be fun bad or boring bad. Wish me strength!