The seventies were so awash in fifties nostalgia that it's surprising Dan Wakefield's 1970 bestseller Going All the Way is only now turning up in big-screen form. Of course, not all fifties coming-of-age stories are the same: unlike The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti -- which pretty much dominated the genre in the early seventies -- Going All the Way is set squarely (and I do mean squarely) in classic middle America. Wakefield's Midwest is a Norman Rockwell town, the sort of place that artists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald come from, but never move to.
The film starts in 1954, one of the all-time low points of American culture, a horribly repressed moment when McCarthyism was at its height and rock and roll hadn't quite yet broken into white, middle-class consciousness. Twentyish photographer Sonny Burns (Jeremy Davies) returns home to Indianapolis at the end of the Korean War. Sonny is all mumbles and social awkwardness, the sort of apparent nonentity who has already disappeared from the memories of his high school classmates.
On the train home, Sonny bumps into high school football hero Gunner Casselman (Ben Affleck), a handsome stud who awed Sonny in high school. To Sonny's surprise (and ours), Gunner remembers him, in part, of course, because Sonny once took a particularly legend-boosting shot of him for the school paper.
Sonny is even more flabbergasted when Gunner goes out of his way to strike up a friendship. The experience of war seems to have knocked Gunner off the predictable, middle-class track he followed in school. An incipient bohemian, he now sees the value in a high school outcast like Sonny.
The war has had its impact on Sonny, as well. His homecoming is grotesque. (It's shot in almost exactly the same distorted way as the hilarious scuba scene in The Graduate.) His parents (Jill Clayburgh and John Lordan) are a parody -- well, maybe not a parody -- of God-fearing, conservative True Americans; they expect him to settle down into a dull job and marry his high school sweetie (Amy Locane). To Sonny, Gunner's sexy, "sophisticated" mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is clearly a more exotic sexual possibility -- until, at least, Gunner turns him on to the even more exotic prospect of ... gasp! ... Jewish girls.
To the dismay of Sonny's parents, the two young men become best friends, cruising for chicks, double-dating and wondering what to do with their lives and why. Worst of all, they are clearly not going to stick with the lives they were programmed for. Like veterans of the World Wars before them, they have seen too much to placidly pretend that Indianapolis is all the world has to offer. Less than a thousand miles away is New York City, a wonderland filled with artists and writers.
Fresh out of the world of MTV promos and music videos, director Mark Pellington, working from Wakefield's own screenplay, wisely avoids the excesses of MTV flash. It would have been glaringly inappropriate and anachronistic. There are occasional surreal moments -- most successfully a scene that perfectly reproduces the giddy exhilaration of a first-time drunk. He gives us an engaging look at fifties mid-America -- concentrating on the sexual hypocrisies that, by the story's end, are about to give birth to a rarely chronicled generation of cultural rebels, who thrived between the late Beat period and before the emergence of the sixties counterculture.
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Sonny and Gunner are midwestern cousins to Sonny and Duane, the Texan heroes of The Last Picture Show. But on film, their story never achieves quite the same level of depth or complexity; Going All the Way is somewhere in between the Bogdanovich classic and American Graffiti on the realism scale. This is the best work to date I've seen from director of photography Bobby Bukowski; he and production designer Therese Deprez don't miss a trick in recreating the look and feel of the period. (Contrary to what you might think from other films about the fifties, the world was in color back then.)
Davies is very effective as an even bigger screwup than he played in Spanking the Monkey; he looks like a younger Buck Henry or Orson Bean, but his clumsy, flumphering physical gestures are a cross between Stan Laurel and Jake Johansen. Affleck reveals a hunky, leading-man quality that was not apparent in Chasing Amy; and Warren is, as always, sexy and funny, in a too-small role.
Going All the Way.
Directed by Mark Pellington. With Jeremy Davies, Ben Affleck, Amy Locane, Rose McGowan, Rachel Weisz, John Lordan, Bob Swan, Jill Clayburgh and Lesley Ann Warren.
Run time 104 minutes.