Release Date: January 25, 1985
Cast: Kevin Costner, Judd Nelson, Sam Robards, Chuck Busch, Suzy Amis, Glenne Headly, Marvin McIntyre, E.G. Daily
Writer(s): Kevin Reynolds
Synopsis: On the night before his wedding, the student deferment keeping Ken (Robards) out of Viet Nam expires, which prompts him to call off the marriage. His best friend Gardener (Costner), who got his deferment letter a week earlier, sees this as the perfect opportunity to hit the road for one last booze-filled drive down the Texas interstate with his friends.
Review: Kevin Reynolds would have higher-profile flops starring Kevin Costner (Waterworld), but this was the first. Despite Steven Spielberg’s love for Reynold’s USC student film “Proof” and his willingness to produce a feature version of the story, he wasn’t happy enough with the finished product to keep his name on it (though it was still released under his production shingle, Amblin). Before I had a chance to see it for myself, that’s more or less what I knew about Fandango. That and the fact that it was a bomb. Amblin scaled back on the film’s planned wide-release and dumped it in 27 theaters in late January, dooming Reynolds’ $4 million first film to a little under $100,000 at the box office. If you haven’t heard of it 30 years later, don’t worry, because most people in 1985 hadn’t heard of it either.
I’m not here to tell you that Fandango is a lost masterpiece of the 80s, unjustly kicked to the curb by the people behind the scenes and public at large. But I am here to tell you that the movie is pretty good and that the skydiving scene is actually really great. Mostly though, this is a small, coming-of-age road trip story where the leads scream at each other, drink beer and learn life lessons. Maybe that wasn’t what Spielberg paid for, but the finished product deserved better than it got, if for no other reason than for putting Kevin Coster in front of a camera for the first time (technically) and letting him do his thing.
The problem with movies like these—movies where you’re following a group of dudes who’ve named themselves “The Groovers”—is that you either like these dudes or you don’t. Here, two-fifths of the group are essentially sight gags, with Lester (Cesak) passed out drunk the whole time and Dorman (Bush) reading classic literature and Marvel comics, oblivious to the shrieking chaos and melodrama around him. Dorman is actually my favorite character (maybe eve of the series so far). He moves at his own pace, like when the guys try to tie the front fender of their car to a speeding train in order to avoid dying in the desert. Reynolds cuts together a nice set-piece, but his best decision is to have Dorman move slowly—even as a car full of people shriek at him to hurry, he moves as if in a secret conversation with the universe, Buddha-like (or Yoda-like, at least)—which makes the character and scene feel like a cousin to the Coen brothers. Those elements of otherworldliness and wisdom almost makes him a fourth wall breaker, with the comic grace of a Chuck Jones character.
That said, the story is more interested in the dynamic between Gardener (Costner), Kenneth (Robbards) and Phil (Nelson). Their journey feels shaggy even when it’s built around the specifics of draft dodging, dropping out of a marriage or discussing what the future holds for them beyond drinking themselves blind under the Texas sun. So by the time we get to the skydiving sequence, at least some of those elements feel contrived solely to create a framework around which this set-piece can exist. The actors are all doing fine work, but Reynolds’ direction doesn’t spark during these heart-to-heart moments the same way it does during this sequence. Watching it now, there’s no question as to what Spielberg saw in that early short film. It’s a master class in set-up and pay-off, right down to the final moment when a small burst of clothes come raining down out of the sky.
Reynolds would have been a great addition to Spielberg’s stable of talent, if only they’d paired him with a Bob Gale script or something that might have unlocked this part of his brain a little more. But slavishly recreating the student film that got him the gig in the first place ultimately stalled his career. Maybe it wasn’t that Spielberg didn’t like the filmmaking on display, but saw it in the context of a story about arrested development and feared the whole thing was a letter of confession saying, “this is all I’ve got.” It took another six years before Reynolds directed his one and only hit in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with a forgotten war movie and an episode of Amazing Stories somewhere in the middle. So while I really liked Fandango, part of me wonders what the world of film would look like if it didn’t exist.
Better Off Dead or The Sure Thing?: The sure thing
Next Up: Mismatched Couples