Sitcoms thrive on atmosphere and character, but are short on storytelling (you can't shoehorn much of a story into 22 minutes). So it's not surprising that "The Flamingo Kid," directed and cowritten by longtime sitcom auteur Garry Marshall, bears the same strengths and flaws. The movie has an engaging surface, but it's all surface -- it's like watching an outsize TV.
Jeffrey Willis (Matt Dillon) is a kid from Brooklyn with a head for cards. His old neighborhood pals, part of the upwardly mobile exodus to Long Island, retrieve him as a ringer for a low-stakes gin game in a back room of their country club, the El Flamingo. (He not only wins -- he tabulates the points in his head). Tinkering under the hood of a car in crisis, he lands a summer job as a parking lot attendant; and when he's adopted as a prote'ge' by Phil Brody (Richard Crenna), a car dealer who owns half the club, he gets promoted to cabana boy.
Brody, driver of sports cars and wearer of silk shirts, comes to epitomize for Jeffrey the swanky world beyond the El. And it doesn't hurt that Brody's also the "king" of the club's high-stakes gin table, or that he has a niece (Janet Jones) whom Jeffrey falls in love with. With Brody as his hero, Jeffrey repudiates the solid middle-class values of his father, a plumber (Hector Elizondo). Out with college -- he'd rather sell cars.
Of course, Brody is ultimately revealed as a conniving nouveau Richelieu, and Jeffrey ends up embracing his father and his beliefs -- as with any sitcom, you can figure out "The Flamingo Kid" before you're halfway through your popcorn. The love interest is glommed on just so Marshall can shoot Jones swimming and diving and otherwise carrying on in her Catalina swimsuit (her corn-fed curviness suggests the young Doris Day). Similarly slapdash is the use of '60s period music (why is Little Richard bleating at Yonkers Raceway?) And the gin game itself is never developed in the narrative -- Marshall never gets you inside the drama and mechanics of card playing, so the inevitable showdown between Brody and the kid doesn't draw you in.
"The Flamingo Kid" is filled with banal chatter about "dreams" and ends with TV-style happy-family hokum (don't those studies of domestic violence ever make it to Hollywood?). But it also has some snappy sitcom dialogue (Marshall created such favorites as "Happy Days" and "Mork and Mindy").
In a strange, oddly affecting performance, Matt Dillon plays against his image as a troubled teen idol. With a porkpie hat planted on the back of his crew-cut head, Dillon's ears stick out, and his legs are pale and knobby in shorts -- it's James Dean playing Walter Brennan. In "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish," Dillon made a style out of inarticulateness. But in "The Flamingo Kid," that style is attached to a theme -- he's dumbfounded by the wealth around him. Dillon's Jeffrey always seems befuddled, his body darting in seven directions at once; he's comfortable only when he's got cards in his hands. It's a touching portrait of a smart kid who, for lack of a better outlet, applies his math genius to playing gin.
Crenna is suavely contemptible as Brody. As he mugs and gesticulates, self-confidently pushing the buttons of the people around him, he's an actor playing a fraud playing a role. And the movie has nice work around the edges by Jessica Walter as Brody's bored, bitchy wife, Fisher Stevens as one of Jeffrey's frenetic, hustling buddies and Bronson Pinchot as a self-involved, fleshy rich kid.
The movie is at its best in recreating the milieu of new-money hypocrisy in the Rockaways of the early '60s -- the vanity about suntans and automobiles, the brash materialism, the snobbery of those fresh from the Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn toward those who remained. When the club features fireworks for the Fourth of July, a public address announcer admonishes, "Fireworks are for El Flamingo members only -- nonmembers, please don't look up." He's kidding, but he's not kidding, too. So why do the Willises say grace at table? And why are the characterizations of the leads studiously secular, while everything and everyone around them is not? With touches like these, Marshall undercuts the best thing about his own movie -- its authenticity. Even at its most enjoyable, "The Flamingo Kid" leaves you haunted by its lack of ambition. "The Flamingo Kid," now playing at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for occasional profanity.