Hopelessly lost, but making good time -- that's the kind of sensation you get watching William Richert's "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon." And, strangely enough, the feeling isn't altogether unpleasant.
Which isn't to say that the movie ever amounts to anything more than a precocious curiosity. But it is surprisingly winning and original to a degree that can't be chalked up entirely to low expectations or mere comparisons with the other films of its type.
The movie, which stars River Phoenix, gives every indication of being a standard-issue coming-of-age teen comedy. Based on Richert's youth novel "Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?," the film recounts a crucial 36-hour period of decision in the life of the movie's outgoing teen-age hero. The question at hand is whether Jimmy will study business there in Evanston, Ill., at the alma mater of his father or put together enough bread to run off to Hawaii to be with his rather conventional-minded, upper-crust girlfriend, Lisa (Meredith Salenger).
But whether Jimmy ends up pursuing either of these options doesn't seem to matter at all to Richert. Or really to us either. The dilemma is purely a device to have Jimmy interact with his world.
You don't have to grade on the curve to respond to this film's obvious charms, one of which is River Phoenix's performance. With his sculpted hair and eager-beaver eyes, Phoenix looks like a cross between Mickey Rooney and James Dean. He's sort of what Michael J. Fox might be like if he were a real person.
There's an alluring freshness and eccentricity in the manner Richert has chosen to approach his story, an almost obsessive disdain for following the conventional plot paths. What we get from the film are oddly and loosely connected scenes, none of which seems to bounce straight off the cushions.
There are rampant peculiarities to consider. For example, Jimmy may seem too sexually active, too worldly, for a teen-ager in 1963. It doesn't seem to take its period any more seriously than it does its plot. In the course of his fund-raising efforts, he not only sleeps with his best friend's girlfriend (Ione Skye) -- as it seems he has been doing for some time -- but also with a divorced friend of his parents (Ann Magnuson). But despite the jolting anachronisms and bizarre character strokes -- like making Jimmy a beat-style poet who gives readings at a local espresso joint -- scenes like the one in which the teen-ager asks the older woman to dance are staged so idiosyncratically and have such enthralling, feather-light rhythms that you're taken completely by surprise.
The events in the film are presented in flashback, as Jimmy looks back over them, and this device makes Richert's script seem quite self-consciously literary without being at all well thought out. When Jimmy fights with his father over school, though, the scene isn't just unfocused; it's irredeemably inept. The film's events are linked only in the most cursory, almost arbitrary manner, where nothing ever builds or follows logically from what has gone before. But you don't really care. This is a case where the voice of the writer and the unexpectedness of the details he's collected allow you to overlook the shoddy mechanics -- even to consider them as part of the movie's odd appeal. In the end, it all becomes part of the movie's blithe, unpredictable spirit.
A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some scenes of sex and sexual situations.