"The Chicken Chronicles," now at area theaters, is a slight, casually amusing sex comedy set among high school students in Beverly Hills, Calif. The time is supposed to be May 1969, but the location does more to individualize the material than the period. Although the war in Vietnam is projected as a backdrop for the good-humored shenanigans in the foreground, it never becomes urgent or imposing. The filmmakers actually exploit the period more effectively by seizing the opportunity to dress the coeds in mini-skirts.
It's the Beverly Hills setting that puts a special humorous wrinkle on some of the conventional girl-chasing, prank-playing, adult-conning, fun-seeking misadventures of the adolescent hero, a high school senior named David Kessler. Culturally, David and his friends share preoccupations, pastimes, expectations and confusions that are typically middle-class, but they dwell in surroundings that may enhance the comedy inherent in growing up middle-class by appearing unusually luxurious.
For example, when a tryst with the class Dream Girl (Lisa Reeves cast as a honey-blonde deceiver named Margaret, looks wittily reminiscent of Cybill Shepherd and especially distracting in mini-skirts) falls apart, David finds himself fleeing across a wonderfully surreal "backyard" landscape, boobytrapped by such sweel obstacles as private swimming pools, private tennis courts and lawns that set off alarms and floodlights when prowlers set foot on them.
Rigging a smoke bomb under the hood of the dean of boy's car, David's best friend Mark reveals that he got it from someone who knows someone in special effects; in case one doubted it, the bomb goes up in kandy-kolored pastel smoke. At home the hero's parents are portrayed as disembodied voices, but his mother can still fuss at him over an elaborate intercom system, with outlets in every room.
A movie called "The Chicken Chronicles" - the hero has a part-time job at a fast-food franchise called Chicken on the Run, operated by a loquacious fraud named Max Ober, irresistibly embodied by Phil Silvers - is scarcely calculated to inspire great expectations.
If one bothers to see this movie at all, there's a fair chance of being pleasantly surprised, a mild yet tonic contrast to the current attractions of importance, like "Julia" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."
At the very least it suggests a beginning instead of a dead end. The contributions of the writer, Paul Diamon, the 24-year-old son of Billy Wilder's collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, and the lead, Steven Guttenberg, are especially promising. They have the skills to become bracing humorous company, provided they skirt the obvious traps and don't fall into unbreakable situation-comedy habits early in their careers. "The Chicken Chronicles" may be slightly too racy and personal for TV in its present form, but the material would lend itself all too easily to routine manufacture.
Diamond's original screenplay is presumably based on his own good times as a student at Beverly Hills High, and its has a pecky, playful amiability. There's some genuine sociability and crackle in the dialogue and some spirited invention in the situations and characters.
Guttenberg, an 18-year-old New Yorker making his film debut, looks physically robust and brawny and projects an instantly likable personality. Whether he's destined to move in the direction of Peter Kastner or Richard Dreyfuss is a mystery at this point, but one certainly wishes him the latter route.
Guttenberg has resources that don't immediately reveal themselves. In one of the movie's happiest interludes, David and two fellow employees take advantage of their boss' absence to stage an impromptu song-and-dance number, "Lickin' Chicken," and Guttenberg turns out to be delightfully quick-fotted. Although David is supposed to be a better-than-average sprinter, one isn't quite prepared for the spontaneous fun in his few moments of dancing.
Director Francis Simon doesn't have nearly enough resources, so the movie frequently looks inadequately visualized or paced, static at one moment and blurred the next. The energy in the script and predominantly young cast seem to keep the picture afloat. One of the funnier life preservers is 13-year-old Gino Baffa, cast as David's sly kid brother, who ends up stealing his invitation and dinner jacket in order to crash the senior class graduation party. Baffa is the first juvenile actor I've seen who appears to be kidding the image Robby Benson has been trying to perfect - the wimp who would be ladykiller. If audiences were willing to give Benson the benefit of the doubt on "One on One," there's an extra reason or two to string along with "The Chicken Chronicles."