Review No. 611
“Express” is what it does not.
Director — Steven Spielberg
Producer — Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown
Screenplay — Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
Story — Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Barwood & Mr. Robbins
Goldie Hawn — Lou Jean Poplin
Ben Johnson — Captain Harlin Tanner
William Atherton — Clovis Michael Poplin
Michael Sacks — Patrolman Maxwell Slide
Distributor — Universal Pictures
Release Date — March 31, 1974 (New York); April 5, 1974 (Los Angeles); April 5, 1974 (USA)
DVD Premiere — August 17, 2004 (USA)
Language — English
Country — USA
Running Time — 1 hour, 50 minutes
MPAA — (appeal note) — ADULT SITUATIONS, PROFANITY AND VIOLENCE.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS WAS WATCHED ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2013.
Newsflash. There is indeed a movie that raises more questions than the Almighty Question-Raiser (2001: A Space Odyssey). Okay, maybe there’s two, and I’d just rather not mention Plan 9 from Outer Space in a movie so completely different. The Sugarland Express isn’t at all a bad movie, so it deserves no comparison to Ed Wood, but as much as I hate to say it, Ed Wood is a lot more fun to watch. The Sugarland Express has enough flaws to be a guilty pleasure, but it isn’t because it thinks the world of itself.
But back to the question-raising. Here’s an inventory of the questions I was asking myself as I watched The Sugarland Express.
PONDERING THE FIRST:
Is this really a Spielberg movie? TIME magazine gave a spot-on report not too long ago about how you can tell whether or not you’re watching a Steven Spielberg movie. The Sugarland Express has all five components. Daddy issues, check. Streams of light, yeah I think so. Awestruck faces, got it. A camera angled through the glass at least once, yup. John Williams, of course. I remember these because as I write this review, I have just watched the movie. But these are really fleeting moments in a rather forgettable movie. Ask me in a month whether or not it was Spielberg, and I’ll probably say no. Nine-point-five times out of ten, he innovates more than this.
PONDERING THE SECOND:
The Sugarland Express was released in 1974. So were Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Instead of writing a movie that starts like a one-movie spoof and ends as a serious drama, why didn’t they just do a one-movie spoof and hand it to Mel Brooks? It’s more logical than handing it to someone who hasn’t directed anything but a TV movie, a short film, a TV pilot, possibly a few other things for TV…
(You know I love Spielberg; I’m just trying to think reasonably.)
PONDERING THE SECOND AND A HALF:
Would Mel take the screenplay, given that so many jokes are recycled around the two-hour clock?
PONDERING THE THIRD:
Can we instead consider Duel to be Spielberg’s directorial debut? It came to American theaters in ’83, so technically, it’s his seventh movie, but it aired as a TV movie three years before Sugarland, and it hit theaters in several countries before Sugarland even went into production. From the sound of it, it’s a more inventive place to start.
PONDERING THE FOURTH:
Why couldn’t Spielberg have made this a mini-series, and save Jaws for his first movie? So much happens that bleeds continually over the constraints of two hours. The characters are already developed because they’ve been done by Faye Dunaway and Robert Redford; beyond that, they’re forced to make confusing, random decisions (SEE NEXT PONDERING FOR MORE).
PONDERING THE FIFTH:
This is the story of Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin. They’re rescuin’ they baby boy frumma fawst’r home, but waida momen’, things git screw’n up. Do they or do they nawt want fame? Lou Jean is first concern’d tha’ th’ TV peoples’re after her. Then, alluva sudden, she’s concern’d thadder mugshawt don’t look too well. Wut in pluperfect hell chang’d her thinker? About the Clovis, middle name Michael: Duz ‘e really wunna be a cop, specially after gittin outta the penitentiary, or duz ‘e wunna c’mit more crimes in order t’ git his kid? I really don’t gittit.
PONDERING THE SIXTH:
You are reading this review about a month after I have finished writing a full-length screenplay. It takes the “Bonnie and Clyde” concept into redneck territory, and it’s called Raise Your Redneck Hands: or, How the Confedrit Won the War. As I watched The Sugarland Express, I couldn’t help but think that I did this better than these two writers. Does this make me a narcissist?
PONDERING THE SEVENTH:
Why did Goldie Hawn seem so excited in this movie? Why wasn’t she ever bored stiff? William Atherton was, in the role of her husband. You’d think that she hasn’t seen Bonnie and Clyde because she’s so excited to play a role, as if she were the first person in the role. But she has seen that influential juggernaut, because she’s a good eighty-five to ninety percent of what Faye Dunaway was as Bonnie seven years earlier.
(Should I seek help?)
PONDERING THE EIGHTH:
Why does the screenplay assume that the story moves along with the humor? To whoever primarily wrote the characters: they propel the story, dumbass. And by the way. At an estimate…exactly how much of the characters’ personalities was maintained? 50%? 33%? Nothing? This is (apparently) based on a true story, and I completely forgot for most the film. Nobody acts on a molecular impulse like these two do.
PONDERING THE NINTH:
After subjecting to Stockholm syndrome for so long, how did that cop suddenly decide to tell them that he wasn’t going to drive them any further toward Sugar Land, Texas?
PONDERING THE TENTH:
Did anyone ever think of mentioning the spelling errors all throughout the film, even in the title? “Sugarland” was a country group that didn’t form until nearly three decades later. “Sugar Land” is a city in Texas, where this film is set.
I guess it’s dismissible if no one who worked on the film ever tried flying out to Texas; you can kind of tell from a few fake set pieces.
PONDERING THE PENULTIMATE:
Why are the cops idiots? Is this some sort of donut famine? It sure seems like it. Just take the Irish Potato Famine and add withdrawal effects: low cholesterol, and low IQ so they don’t have to panic about low cholesterol. At least the “cops and donuts” cliché was avoided.
PONDERING THE LAST:
I thought I’d already said it, but apparently not:
What the hell kind of a jury gave this the Best Screenplay award at the Festival de Film de Cannes?
Ain’t no telling.
READ ON FOR MY FILM BY FILM BREAKDOWN OF STEVEN SPIELBERG…
GREEN = WORTH WATCHING
ORANGE = MAYBE WORTH WATCHING
RED = NOT WORTH WATCHING
BLUE = HAVEN’T SEEN IT
The Sugarland Express
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Raiders of the Lost Ark
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Color Purple
Empire of the Sun
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Saving Private Ryan
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Catch Me If You Can
War of the Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Adventures of Tintin