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‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (PG-13)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 10, 1986

Not since the heyday of Frank Capra, perhaps, has there been a movie that so seamlessly combines screwball comedy with get-out-your-handkerchiefs heart. "Peggy Sue Got Married" isn't about solving life's problems, it's about accepting them, in a world where love doesn't conquer all, but conquers enough. And in the hands of director Francis Coppola, that message makes what could have been merely a delightful lark about time travel into something much more.

The plot of "Peggy Sue Got Married" is similar to that of "Back to the Future," but its concerns are essentially different. At her 25-year high school reunion, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), the former prom queen, sees only what a mess her life has become -- her husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage), a small-town Crazy Eddie, is having an affair, and their marriage is disintegrating. But through some sort of time warp she travels back to her teen-age days, where the decisions that brought her to this crisis in her life were made.

As scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, "Peggy Sue Got Married" works some of the satirical magic of "Back to the Future" by looking at a bygone era with modern eyes (Peggy Sue's father, for example, enthusiastically unveils his new automobile -- an Edsel). But the thrust of the satire here has less to do with props than with the shift in attitudes about sex and sex roles, money, marriage and conformism.

That's not to say the props aren't there -- the décor of "Peggy Sue Got Married" is gloriously crafted by the movies' most accomplished production designer, Dean Tavoularis, with a meticulous eye for the details of the period. But where "Back to the Future" captured a kid's point of view, his anxieties about his father's inadequacies and his sexual desire for his mother (it was really a slapstick Oedipus story), "Peggy Sue Got Married" is told from the perspective ofa mature woman who's trying to figure out what's really important in life.

That explains why Turner's performance, which doesn't try to convince us she's a teen-ager, isn't jarring at all. Turner's 32 years old, and she plays it that way -- we're seeing her not the way her contemporaries see her, but the way she sees herself. She's like Jimmy Stewart in the surreal sequences of "It's a Wonderful Life," invisible, in a way; and almost invisibly, Turner has emerged as one of Hollywood's most versatile actresses.

"Peggy Sue Got Married" showcases Turner's remarkable flair for comedy -- a snappiness with a string of dialogue that recalls Katharine Hepburn and, more than that, a rare kind of enthusiasm. Turner throws herself into the fun -- she's not afraid to show the child inside her, and that, too, makes the time travel more believable. But the essence of the character's comedy lies in the clash between a woman who knows who she is and the people around her who think they know who she is; Turner finds in that disjunction a rich vein of double takes, put-downs and Jack Benny pauses.

Playing opposite Turner, Cage finds his own ingenious solution to the problem of making time travel seem real -- he plays Charlie as a stylized version ofan early '60s teen-ager. He affects a Fabian pompadour and a dental insert that makes him look goofy, but the cartoon goes further as Cage twists his voice with a twangy nasality and builds the insecurities of adolescence into the stuttering of Charlie's guffaw. With remarkable detail, Cage locates what's vain and superficial about Charlie (he's the kind of kid who can focus obsessively on a Rice Krispies square), but he also finds what's touching -- his confusion, and his dreams about the future. He makes you feel that Charlie's not all that different from Peggy Sue -- he's searching for what's important in life, too, but without the benefit of hindsight.

Cage is joined by another young actor, Barry Miller, as a math nerd who thrums with the resentment of the outcast, and by a third, Kevin J. O'Connor, who appears in the hilarious role of a self-styled beatnik crazed with thoughts of Kerouac. The trio recalls Coppola's unique (and sometimes forgotten) talent for discovering and developing young actors. The now-famous stars of "The Godfather," after all, were (except for Brando) unknowns at the time, as were the stars of "The Outsiders," a virtual Who's Who of the Brat Pack.

Acknowledging that "Peggy Sue Got Married" is based on a conceit, Coppola has the actors who belong to the past (that is, all except Turner) playing with an unreal vividness, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth has bathed their world in a hard light that subtly evokes the artifice of "The Wizard of Oz" or a Minnelli musical. But in the orchestration of the movie's emotion, he insists that these events are real, which lends "Peggy Sue" its homespun profundity. Here you don't see Coppola the camera wizard, you see Coppola the storyteller, the maker of fables. And by the end, you don't feel warmly just toward the movie, but toward the man behind it. You feel you're welcoming Francis Coppola home.

"Peggy Sue Got Married" is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity and sexual themes.

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