It would be misleading to pretend that "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" was a big deal. Inconsistent but zestful, this farce about the fanatic reactions of a group of New Jersey high-school kids to the first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show is, however, an amiable promise of good times to come - a showcase for fresh, young talent, both behind and before the cameras.
"I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is the first feature directed by Robert Zemeckis, a 26-year-old alumnus of the USC film school. He wrote the screenplap in collaboration with Robert Gale, also a 26-year-old USC alum, and Universal agreed to finance and distribute the movie after Steven Spielberg, director of "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," offered to front as executive producer. Earlier, Zemeckis and Gale wrote a comedy script that Spielberg intends to direct one of these years.
Zemeckis displays a flair for exuberant, kinetic humor and graphically dynamic composition not unlike Spielberg's. After a slightly stilted prologue, in which Will Jordan as Sullivan alerts his ushers to the problems they may encounter on the night of the telecast, Zemeckis begins building up a head of steam and never entirely loses it, although the episodic script is an up-and-down, hit-and-miss proposition.
Most of the principal characters enter during an amusing an tumultuous sequence set at a record store in Maplewood, N.J., that is swamped by customers seeking the LP "Meet the Beatles!" You feel as if you're in the thick of things, being swept along by an accelerating comic hysteria. When Wendie Jo Sperber, playing the pudgy, determined Beatlemaniac Rosie Petrofsky, makes the first of several mad dashes for a telephone in order to call disc jockey. Murray the K (who's awarding tickets to the Sullivan show for correct answers to questions about the Beatles) Zemeckis hurls us into a phone booth with her. When she's joined by two friends, one feels crowded in a delightful sort of way.
At its most appealing the movie sustains this illusion of sharing an irresistible, funny, generational passion. Zemeckis and Gale may have envisioned a kind of nostalgic companion piece to Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night," which revealed what the Beatles went through before going to perform for screaming, swooning fans. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is a pellmell slapstick impression of what some of those fans went through to order to get near their idols.
Rosie and her pal Grace Corrigan (Thersa Saldana) are the prime movers. Tey induce a susceptible classmate, nerdy Larry Dubois (Marc McClure), into chauffering them to New York City in one of the limousines owned by his father, a mortuary owner. They are accompanied by demure Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen), who keeps reminding everyone that she shouldn't be going along, since she's supposed to elope that weekened, and hostile Janis Goldman (Susan Kendall Newman), who professes to abhor Geatlemania. En route to Manhattan for this lost weekend they are joined by punky Tony Smerko (Bobby DI Cicco), a potentially psychotic soulmate of the Fonz, also hostile to the Beatles, whom he derides as "pansies."
Rosie and Grace, who yearns to photograph The Beatles in order to launch a career in yellow journalism, try time and again to crash the stars' heavily guarded suite at the Plaza or finagle tickets to the telecast. Through one ruse or another almost every member of the gang makes the show, but soft-spoken, scaredy-cat Pam gets there first. Without intending to she gains access to the suite, indulges in an extended erotic reverie among the occupants' instruments, belongings and leftovers and becomes a discovered hiding under a bed.
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Nancy Allen made her first impression on moviegoers as Chris, the delectably hateful class bitch in "Carrie." At first glance, her Pam seems the least of the heroines in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Sperber, who suggests a cross between Gilda Radner and Margaret Rutherford, and Saldana, who resembles Joan Rivers, dominate the early sequences. They have both the looks and styles of born, irrepressible comediennes. Even Newman, whose character turns out to have the weakest motivation of the four girls, seems more indentifiable at first, partly because she could pass for Laraine Newman.
Cowering demurely in the shadows, Allen begins emerging brilliantly after Pam discovers herself alone in The Beatles' rooms. She reveals the subtlest characterization of the film, projecting impressions of adolescent rapture that seem authentically funny and endearing. Suddenly, she is overcome by feelings she can't comprehend. Allen does wonders with this mood of voluptuous confusion.
Unlike Sperber and Saldana, she is not a naturally funny performer, but she achieves two of the funniest takes in the picture - a look of panic when she thinks her presence in the suite will be discovered and a tearful ecstasy at the telecast when she clutches the ends of her skirt and balls it up between her trembling knees.
The sweetest moment of revelation in the film occurs when Allen has been tracked down by her annoyed boyfriend. Driving past the TV studio, she confesses, "I don't want to get married. I want to see The Beatles!" It seems a sublime act of independence and self-knowledge. At that point in her life it's absolutely true that what Pam needs is a fantasy passion, not a permanent attachment. She's what the craze is all about.
Zemeckis and Gale fail to invent an effective change in attitude for Newman's Janis, whose resistance to the craze looks artificial when she merely drops it in time for the fadeout. One misses the definite emotional involvement and turmoil that exist for the other girls. Di Cicco's Tony is hostile in ways that look a trifle dangerous, and the filmmakers pull a supernatural gag out of their hats to resolve it. They're cheating, but the gag itself is amusing to watch - sort of an homage to "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Young Frankenstein."
The cast is full of comers, several of them so distinctive that they may be snapped up and stereotyped too soon. A hit comedy series with Sperber and Saldana could probably be launched tomorrow. Di Cicco is a sensational young actor, potentially the next significant Italian-American star, but if he's not careful, he may end up playing young psychos as often as Robert De Niro or Bruce Dern. Eddie Deezen, cast as a creepy little Beatlemaniac named Richard Klaus, sets off peculiarly funny vibrations, since he suggests a mad scientist's cross of Jerry Lewis with Arnold Stang.
Utimately, the commercial fate of the movie is less important than the professional fates of the talented young people involved in it. One wants to see more of these performers and more from Zemickis and Gale. Here's hoping they all jump right into another movie withouta moments's hesitation.