Watching "Heroes," which opens today at area theaters, induces a dispiriting sense of deja vu. Suddenly, you're surrounded by several old acquaintances you'd much prefer to forget.
The romantic leads are a manic, deluded Vietnam veteran played by Henry Winkler and a reluctant bride played by Sally Field (who was also running away from matrimony in "Smokey and the Bandit"). They meander from New York City to Northern California in pursuit of the tentative reassurances that love can be a comfort, while one is compelled to browse among remnants of a lot of would-be affecting, style-setting movies that suffered from ragged artistic tailoring in the first place. There's a big swatch of "Morgan!" for example, plus smaller swatches of "The Rain People" "Two-Lane Blacktop." "Scarecrow" and "Steelyard Blues."
When the hero, undergoing a traumatic breakthrough just in time for the fadeout, hallucinates a search-and-destroy mission on the placid street of Eureka, Calif., one even recognizes a swatch from "Alex in Wonderland." Underneath this loosely sewn crazy-quilt of outmoded "modernist" influences the plot of "It Happened One Night" is plainly discernible. The movie still ends up in a crumpled emotional heap, although Winkler works like a demon to make it throb with sincerity and conviction and director Jeremy Paul Kagan manages to finesse some of the patchiness by keeping the show on the road.
Instead of being touched by this anachronistic road allegory, one is merely puzzled. What prompted this material, redolent of so many failed "counterculture" romances of a few years ago, to surface at this time?
Evidently, the original script, written by James Carabatsos, kicked around for several years and was rejected by every major studio before Universal finally decided to take a chance on it, at the urging of Winkler, who obvionsly viewed it as a marvelous acting opportunity. It's not so much that as an opportunity to play everything that his popular Fonzie isn't: a vulnerable, haunted, insecure, impulsive personality. The problem is that Winkler seems to have taken a well-deserved vacation from one set of cliches in order to submerge himself in the opposite set of cliches. Switching from complacent, lovable Fonzie to haunted, lovable Jack Dunne, a sentimental writer's notion of the forgotten, suffering Vietnam vet, may demonstrate Winkler's virtuosity, but he's kidding himself if he thinks Jack Dunne is a more authentic or winning character than Fonzie.
Recently a screenwriter I know told me an authentic Billy Wilder story. He met Wilder at a party and mentioned a script he'd been struggling to get produced for many years. Wilder asked to read it and remarked drily. "Just because it's been necessarily make it great."
The initial rejections of "Heroes" weren't necessarily wrong, as the finished film indicates. All the studios were burned by similar feckless vehicles in the early '70s. Synopsizing the plot tends to make people's attention wander. Well, it's about this slightly deranged but swell guy who wants to start a worm-raising business with his old service buddies, only it's all delusion and at the end he's gonna be all right because he realizes it's all a delusion and gets the girl too . . .
If sheer effort is enough to guarantee on Oscar nomination, Winkler may have sweated himself into the race. Nevertheless, it's more satisfying when an actor can do what Sylvester Stallone did in "Rocky," where the end result seems to justify the hard work that went into achieving it. Winkler's character has a way of shrinking when he isn't threatening to fly apart or break down. Even in a small, unglamrous role as a rawboned hick. Harrison Ford, who played the cynical Han Solo in "Star Wars," projects a more plausible illusion of leading man status.
Sally Field is quite appealing in the early stages of the movie when she's responding suspiciously to Winkler's manic overtures. Later, compelled to abandon her screwball comedy skeptisicm and become infinitely loving and understanding offering a soft shoulder for the weary hero to rest his head upon, she can barely keep her head above water. For example, she's stuck with the impossible task of bringing conviction to a big, emotional telephone scene - a call to he fiance calling off the wedding - that cries out for some adequate preparation and eloquent dialogue. Watching her struggle to bring off this misguided set piece, you wish there were some way to loss her a life-preserver.