THE GUMBALL RALLY
(PG, Warner Bros., 105 mins., theatrical release date: July 28, 1976)
"Carsploitation" is in no way associated with Gary Numan, but is instead a handy, catchall term for the type of movie designed to show off chromium enhancements and monochromatic riders. The post-Easy Rider models usually crashed against the brick wall of existentialism, while the two-wheel designs were less heady and built expressly for hedonistic speed, with a catchall term of its own. With the release of both Gone in 60 Seconds and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in 1974, the era of solemnly-fueled chase pictures like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop was supplanted by undemanding, goofier action flicks which emphasized zany characters and projected demolition derby set pieces onto screens. Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, made under Roger Corman's aegis, is the gonzo masterpiece of this particular lot, in which its annual Transcontinental Road Race is a dystopian blend of bread-and-circus and hit-and-run; Race with the Devil, also from 1975 and starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, is as bizarre as a Larry Miller Toyota salesman pitching you a hearse.
1976 was the year when Death Race writer Charles B. Griffith induced Ron Howard to pop the clutch and tell the world Eat My Dust! Another New World title, Moving Violation, recycled the familiar theme of lovers (Stephen McHattie, Kay Lenz) on the run from corrupt authority. And Bartel reluctantly followed up Death Race 2000 with a movie based unofficially on Brock Yates' well-publicized Cannonball Baker Memorial Dashes, only this time facing big studio competition when Warner Bros. rolled out The Gumball Rally in the same summer.
Directed by Charles Bail (Black Samson), The Gumball Rally acts as a PG-rated alternative to the saucier fare Corman marshaled. There's no nudity, the violence is strictly auto-destructive and the dialogue doesn't get any racier than the notion of sniffing butts. It confirms the sea change in carsploitation by repurposing not Easy Rider, but It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Norman Burton takes the Spencer Tracy role of the fanatical policeman who blows his top trying to trap the speed demons, and there's even a throwaway gag involving the incineration of a mass of fireworks. Alas, Stanley Kramer's ambitious slapstick, which built up to delirious chaotic juxtapositions, remains out of Bail's reach.
That's because the stakes in The Gumball Rally are comparatively lower, promising only a fleeting sensation of glory as opposed to the cash prize buried under that giant W. And the characters are less colorful not simply because of the lack of seasoned muggers, but primarily due to Leon Capetanos' dry-witted script. Michael Sarrazin, filling in for Peter Fonda, plays rally organizer and champion Michael Bannon, who starts the movie looking bored at a conference call and picks up little charisma during the race. At least Burt Reynolds, in the better of his Hal Needham collaborations, seemed liberated and sociable behind the wheel. That boardroom ennui extends to the ensemble, as very few of the characters appear truly joyful to be on the road, often times squabbling and screaming and enduring dopey setbacks which should've played a lot funnier than they come across. Broad comedy is handled either way too stoically or far too stridently for The Gumball Rally to ever reach the red line of hilarity.
The varied drivers Bannon puts out the call for include Barney (J. Pat O'Malley) and Andy (Vaughn Taylor, in his last role), elderly Englishmen who ride slow and steady in a classy Mercedes; Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters) and Susan Flannery (The Towering Inferno) as Jane & Alice, Beaver Falls housewives who take to a souped-up Porsche Targa; stock car daredevil Ace "Mr. Guts" Preston (Gary Busey) and his mechanic Gibson (John Durren), who drive each other crazy in their Camaro; Steven Keats and Wally Taylor as the LAPD officers comprising the Dodge team; and Bannon's longtime competitor Smitty (Tim McIntire), who brings in a ringer named Franco (Raul Julia) and whose Ferrari stands the closest chance of catching up with Bannon and Professor Graves (Nicholas Pryor) in their Cobra. A lone Hungarian on a Kawasaki (Harvey Jason as Lapchik) is the primary source of pratfalls, basically a human Wile E. Coyote on an Acme motorbike. A gofer (Lazaro Perez as Jose) answers a classified ad to commandeer a Rolls Royce and sweet-talks his buxom Queens girlfriend (Tricia O'Neil as Angie) into tagging along for the trek.
Having listed the makes of the vehicles as well as their pilots, The Gumball Rally is obviously far more interested in the former. Schlock cinematographer Richard Glouner frames the cross-country marathon in 'Scope, with ample shots of the automobiles bulleting down tunnels, bridges and wide open highways spanning Times Square to Tulsa to Long Beach. Every once in a while, the action pauses so that Lt. Roscoe (Burton) can be humiliated in some way, from getting robbed of his pants by Lou David (Cropsy from The Burning) or overlooking a cargo truck which carries Smitty and Franco past a checkpoint. Less amusing are the tangents involving the rally's participants, which tend to lack payoffs (the cops, who use state-specific decals to evade capture, are stopped by an expecting father in a traffic jam) or are just dully derivative (Jose and Angie being harassed by a noxious chopper gang).
Gary Busey is fittingly insufferable as the death-defying yokel who's a feeb outside of the stadium, but he'd need another decade to ripen into a real showboat. The only character here who is as sleek and magnificent as his/her ride is Franco, a lustful Italian whose hot-blooded confrontations usually end with him firing a squirt gun at his foes. He snaps the rearview mirror off his Porsche in accordance with the central rule of Italian driving: "What's-a behind me is not important!" In the middle of the contest, Franco leaves Smitty hanging so he can go to bed with Colleen Camp and then catches up with him the next morning, leaving Camp his scarf as a token of their one-night stand. Raul Julia, the Puerto Rican dynamo of stage and screen up until his untimely passing in 1994, is zestfully entertaining in his early showcase, even if Julia never gets to flash a mischievous smile to the viewer. The rest of the cast fail to rise above this affliction, but what can they do since Bail & Capetanos are themselves stuck in the mud? The Gumball Rally, true to its confectionary code name, is a chalky thing which gradually loses its flavor the longer you eat it up.
(PG-13, Universal Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: May 1, 1987)
Issue another citation for pulling up lame to The Allnighter, which would've been the perfect title for a superior version of The Gumball Rally. It refers here to a sundown fiesta held by the imminent graduates of Pacifica College, a USC which looks like it only doles out GEDs. The valedictorian is a demure beach bunny named Molly who, just like Bo Derek before her, is a minor in Love. Her roommate is a totally bitchin' surfer boy (C.J., dude) who hangs a tubular ten but is, like, wow, a wipe out with the babes. Her best friends are Val, a bombshell blonde engaged to an emasculated preppie, and Gina, an oddball redhead preserving their eternal bond on VHS, a surrogate mother kissing her babies goodbye as well as the female equivalent of Mark Cohen from Rent.
And Gina is played by Joan Cusack! Like, reality bites, bud.
Cusack is perhaps the only good aspect of The Allnighter, in hindsight. Towing her camcorder, Gina catches the pre-hangover waves of the Latin-themed blowout, delivering cautionary commentary straight out of a B-horror film. Joan's got Boy George's fashion sense and Brother John's wry faculty with dialogue, a built-in mega-weapon defending her from the inanities of this script. And Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle Jr., plays Val appealingly enough to merit a silent slow clap when she stands up for herself and her friends. Sadly, try as they can, this is neither Cusack nor Pfeiffer's film. The Allnighter is tailored specifically to The Bangles' pin-up attraction Susanna Hoffs, with her mother Tamar Simon H. co-writing, producing and directing. The result is All Over the Place, Everything for no one and too dismal to view in a Different Light nowadays.
Early in her career, Susanna was a beauty of Audrey Hepburn proportions who, along with the Peterson sisters and ex-Runaway Michael Steele, toughened paisley-tinted harmonies/guitars with lyrics that were from the unflinching eyes of women, not idealized "September Gurls." The glossy makeover which heralded their pop superstardom in 1986 caused mixed feelings, and Susanna's elevation to leading lady only worsened the suspicion. Instead of encouraging the starlet to honor Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine, The Allnighter taps from the drained keg of the '60s beach romp, which had been grossly modernized ad nauseum during The Bangles' inaugural prime. To wit: Where the Boys Are was remade badly in the same year their debut LP premiered.
Susanna is hung out to dry as just another naïve sex kitten, when she could've benefited from demonstrating a smidge of the photogenic grit she and her mates showed musically. The nonstarter of a plot involves the anxious Molly, who is staggeringly invisible to surfin' bohunk C.J. (John Terlesky), hoping for a whirlwind romance courtesy of elder Pacifica alumnus and has-been pop icon Mickey Leroi (Michael Ontkean), who isn't as eager and willing as she. Left stranded on the terrace of his luxury suite at the Playa Del Rey, Molly calls her girlfriends for help, but they get wrongfully imprisoned for solicitation (the hotel detectives, played by Mannequin's Meshach Taylor and The Wizard's Will Seltzer, assume they're hookers). Meanwhile, C.J. and Killer (James Anthony Shanta) trade secondhand Spicoli musings ("A babe in the kitchen is worth two on the beach") in between shooting the curl, or at least until a tidal wave washes C.J. up to some moot degree of common sense.
It's phenomenally bogus, all gleaming-teeth amateurism and suntanned stupidity. The coed camaraderie would've been a noble focal point for T.S. Hoffs to build upon (the three leads show some chemistry), but The Allnighter is more concerned with soft-core scenarios for its insipid main character. That poster art of passive Susanna Hoffs in a bikini IS how Molly is conceived. Molly is supposed to be a bright young woman, holding out for a Sam Shepard-style paramour, but the male population surrounding her is staggeringly ridiculous, from the imbecilic surfer dudes to Val's anal-retentive fiancé Brad to the worthless Mickey, who dismisses her as a groupie. She has to lower her standards to the shallow environment in a bid for affection, which makes the concluding sex scene a hollow bore. Val and Gina possess the spunky intelligence denied to the one-dimensional ingénue Susanna is stuck playing.
It should also come as no surprise that T.S. Hoffs arranges scenes with promo video redundancy, not just with her nubile daughter (she gives herself a lascivious makeover to the tune of Aretha Franklin's "Respect") but the characters of the surfer dudes, their ocean escapades serving as interminable relief(?) from the girls' rote dramedy. Timbuk 3's satirically chipper "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" plays over one of the longer surf digressions, cementing its sad legacy as declawed montage music for dopey comedies (right, Tommy Boy?). The big doll house blues which greets Val and Gina, replete with Pam Grier as the icy sergeant, is also a comedic/narrative dead zone, robbing Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack and even Ms. Grier of their tested charms. And aside from the two songs I mentioned, even the soundtrack is negligible. When we hear Mickey's band, The Rhinos (which the grads keeps confusing for The Hippos in one of many strained attempts at comedy), it's clear that The Bangles sounded more convincingly like '60s relics. Speaking of, Susanna Hoffs doesn't sing a note in this movie, not even in front of the mirror. Why?!
The tedium is framed by Gina's earnest documentary ambition: both the starting and ending credits catalog her most extreme close-ups. She ends up showing more directorial finesse than T.S. Hoffs, although they both could do well to have Martha Coolidge as their cinematic guidance counselor. "And I hope, like, if you see this maybe in 20 years at a film festival or…maybe in a theatre," Gina warns at the onset, "you'll remember us this way." Her project is untitled, but The Allnighter serendipitously provides one for her: "Heroine Takes a Fall." And I'm feeling bad all over for writing that. Gee, didn't Frankie & Annette reunite in 1987, too?