Four Friends
directed by Arthur Penn
(Filmways, 1981)

The immigrant experience and coming of age in the '60s are two themes that have always worked well for Hollywood. In Four Friends, renowned director Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) gives us the best of both, and a whole lot more.

Four Friends follows the lives of four young people and a big old-fashioned trunk. The trunk accompanies Danilo Prozor from his native Yugoslavia to East Chicago in the early '50s. There, Danilo and his mother are reunited with his father, a steelworker who left Yugoslavia shortly after Danilo was born.

Cut to 1961. Danilo (Craig Wasson) is about to graduate from high school, along with his three best friends, David (Michael Huddleston), a madras-clad mortician's son who fears his chromosomes will drive him to morticianhood; Tom (Jim Metzler), who's about to receive an unwelcome travel voucher from his Uncle Sam; and Georgia (Jodi Thelen), a fiery if flaky brunette who's convinced she's the reincarnation of Isadora Duncan.

Tom, Dave and Danilo are no Tom, Dick and Harry, but they do have one thing in common: they all love Georgia, or at least they all want Georgia. And they're willing to do just about anything to have her. Georgia only ups the stakes by announcing that she's made an important decision: her days as a virgin are numbered.

But making love to Georgia is no simple matter, and neither is anything else in Four Friends, which often seems less a movie than a series of loosely basted bits and pieces, dream fragments and flashbacks, that add up to a life, or, in this case, four lives.

Few of the pieces make sense in insolation, and some strain to work even in the context of the whole, in part because we have several different voice-over narrators. But it becomes clear as Penn follows his protagonists across the swiftly changing landscape of the 1960s that he's etched a detailed portrait of a difficult decade: from the last gasp of the age of innocence -- when beer was the drug of choice for high school seniors -- to the suicidal narcissism of Greenwich Village circa 1969.

Moreover, the portrait is a moving one because the characters are moving -- in time and space as well as in the heart.

Penn has always been known as an actors' director and in Four Friends, he places acting squarely in center stage. Consequently, his performers push their parts to their limits.

The results are rewarding: Wasson, Thelen, Huddleston and Metzler have created characters who can be funny, tragic and exasperating all at the same time -- in short, real people.

Ultimately, Penn's film works because he recreates the wonderfully idiosyncratic details of an age that Hollywood usually relegates to stereotypes. There are no black lights here, no demonstrations and darn few love beads: just four people trying to find themselves in a trying time.

If that's not enough for you, look elsewhere. If it is, Four Friends is your film.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



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