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‘Tucker: A Man and His Dream’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 12, 1988

Automotive innovator Preston Tucker built his dream machine from used parts and grand schemes. Francis Ford Coppola built "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" from the same basic materials. Tucker came up with a classic, but poor Coppola has turned a great American tragedy into a gas-guzzling human comedy.

Tucker's tragedy is that of an individual crushed by the system, but it extends to the masses who lost their lives because his innovations -- such as seat belts and disc brakes -- were quashed by Detroit in the 1940s. It is a story of genius vanquished by greed, and the real cost of the status quo -- Japanese imports. It's a story so strong that it stands up even to the wrong treatment. And "Tucker" is the right body on the wrong chassis.

What might have been the "Amadeus" of better mousetrap-makers is so cheerily familial it plays like "Ozzie and Harriet Build a Car." The blithe, ebullient Tucker (Jeff Bridges) shares his dreams with his supportive wife Vera (Joan Allen), their passel of loving, all-American kids, a bunch of his buddies from the racing circuit and one dozen Dalmatians. Even when the U.S. of A. gangs up on them, the Tuckers have stars and stripes in their eyes. They do reflect the giddy, expectant adolescence of a nation bushy-tailed from whipping the Axis. (Not-so-sly predictions are made about the economic licking we will later take from our old foes.)

Tucker's gun-turret design helped win the war. And there's no telling how many Allied lives might have been saved if the Army had also bought the tank the turret was built for. It was too fast to meet Army specifications, so the Tuckers drove it when they went to Dairy Queen. But it was his touring car, the Tucker Torpedo, that would galvanize big government and big business opposition to his vision.

Like Mr. Smith, Tucker runs into trouble in Washington when he antagonizes a powerful senator (Lloyd Bridges) in the pocket of Detroit's Big Three. He hounds Tucker and his team as they struggle to get the car on the road and their company off the ground. Venture capitalist Abe Karatz (Martin Landau) helps Tucker with the financing, which is contingent on his building a prototype. The mechanics finish it up as it rolls onto the stage, an hour late for its debut.

The Tucker is aerodynamically delicious, the Carole Lombard of cars. Everybody craves one. But then a former Plymouth executive, hired to give the company credibility with investors, takes over the company as chairman, all because Tucker, an absent-minded "imagineer," hasn't read the contract.

There's drama enough here for 20 movies -- trial by jury, car chases, a scrappy team of engineers racing against time. But "Tucker" is rather flat -- noisy, busy, gussied-up but not involving. It's the stagiest thing Coppola has done since "One From the Heart," with even simple phone conversations choreographed like musical numbers. He gives us grandiosity, but misses the nitty-gritty -- the grease monkeys under the hood. This is after all a movie about building cars, and the car itself is a sleek symbol of what could have been.

Coppola has been a lot of things, from brilliant to excessive, but he has never been so overtly didactic. Here, the message is the myth, clamoring like a cast-off hubcap on a lonely night. Detroit-bashing is, however, in vogue: Even sweet Roger Rabbit took a whack at Motown for tearing up L.A.'s trolley tracks. These days, what's good for General Motors is no longer necessarily good for the U.S.A.

Bridges is the perfect actor for this paranoid Capra fable. From his portrayal emerges a teddy bear man, a hugger who sometimes gets angry and throws things. When he gets an idea, you can practically see the light bulb over his head. He's Jimmy Stewart with plastic seat covers.

"Tucker" is Coppola's metaphor for himself, automaker as auteur: The parallels between the two lives are inescapable -- an independent car manufacturer who loses his factory; an independent producer who loses his studio. And the jarringly upbeat ending confirms the filmmaker's longing to look on the bright side.

Certainly his choice of screen writer indicates a taste for vintage optimism. Arnold Schulman of Capra's "A Hole in the Head" and Richard Attenborough's disastrous "A Chorus Line" generates exactly the sort of vehicle you'd expect, a dated musical without lyrics.

You can't help but wonder what the Coppola of "The Godfathers" and "Apocalypse Now" would have done with Tucker's story. The characters here are mostly hood ornaments, or blustering big wheels. The exception is Landau's cadaverous Abe, the gruff New York financier won over to the contented domesticity of the Tucker family.

Like Abe, we are moving from Wall Street back to Main Street, reassessing our values, determining whether there is after all a spiritual side to capitalism. Tucker is St. Horatio Alger, martyred in the very act of pulling himself up by his bootstraps.

Coppola's failures are often more interesting than other directors' best efforts. "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" fits nicely into that category, an Edsel of a movie. At least it isn't a Hyundai. Coppola, bless him, would never do anything small-spirited -- or for that matter economical.

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