By Ray Sawhill
Francis Coppola’s “Tucker: A Man and his Dream” lumbers around, off in its own world, doing little pirouettes. Coppola wants us to play with ideas about Imperial America, which is fine, but he also wants to make us swallow his view of Francis Coppola. You may not feel like submitting.
“Tucker” is like a Frank Capra movie with a Felliniesque self-consciousness mixed in; the two elements seem meant not to jell but to coexist fairly peacefully. Neither one has much snap; they don’t enhance each other, either. The film, from a script by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, takes off from the story of the actual Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), who, in the heady years after World War II, tried to go outside the major corporations to mass-produce a car that would be snazzy, safe and reasonably priced. But we aren’t given anything besides Tucker’s devotion to his “vision” to explain his persistence and energy. Couldn’t Tucker have had, in addition to enthusiasm, a taste for daredeviltry and high rolling? As a Capraesque bit of kitsch Americana the film is a bust because of Coppola’s conviction that he’s addressing yearnings all of us have outgrown. But he doesn’t mean us to take the storytelling very seriously anyway. The way the WASPiness of the Tuckers is presented as a lack of ethnicity is a sign that we’re not supposed to go looking for much in the people onscreen.
What we’re meant to take more seriously is the Fellini side of the film — Coppola’s view of American public life as a circus, and especially the way the film’s real subject matter is Francis Coppola. Coppola has spoken about having wanted to make a film about Tucker since the early ’60s, but what might have excited him back then about Tucker is a mystery, because the real subject matter of the film as he has made it is his own experience with Zoetrope Studios. This story is as present onscreen as Tucker’s is. (In brief: after creating sensations with the two “Godfather” movies and “The Conversation,” and then exhausting himself and ruining himself financially with “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola tried to recoup his fortunes by breaking with established Hollywood ways of producing movies. He signed actors and technicians to long-term contracts, purchased production facilities, and in interview after interview spoke of developing a radical new technology. Zoetrope’s biggest production was Coppola’s own “One From the Heart”; after all the hoopla, what his revolutionary new studio had produced was a slight romantic comedy with a hallucinogenic look. The film lost huge amounts of money, and a short time later the studio collapsed.)
“Tucker” is gargantuan yet weightless, with some amusement provided by doodles of style — the kinds of neo-Busby Berkeley devices Coppola developed for “One From the Heart”: trick cutting and lighting, patterned sequences that seem on the verge of turning into musical routines. What Coppola is saying is, “So maybe in trying to make a go of Zoetrope, I made a few mistakes and created a lot of fuss. All I ever wanted to do was make better movies. Was that such a sin?” This view of his own history leaves out his disgust and rage. Worse, it fudges the main issue: if, as legend and this film have it, Tucker was more done in by the Big Three (operating through a compliant SEC) than by his own business practices, Coppola was already broken by the time he began assembling Zoetrope’s production facilities. In order to finish “Apocalypse Now,” he’d had to mortgage everything he owned. It’s more accurate to think of Zoetrope as a desperation gamble than as an inspiration. And if the self-reflexive, art-cinema side of this film doesn’t work, it’s mainly because Coppola has simply never, as a filmmaker, been the Orson Welles-like genius of self-display that he seems to think himself. In his best movies, he has worked from inside stories, bringing out the corruption and danger implicit in what we think of as business-as-usual.
Almost nothing in this film connects with the audience. Playing a man whose only characteristics are ingenuousness and exuberance, Bridges persists rather grimly. Of the cast, only Dean Stockwell, who as Howard Hughes has one scene, makes much of an impact. Narcissistic dreaminess and an unconvincingly benevolent indulgence towards storytelling are what Coppola gives us in “Tucker.” He’s like a tiresome old uncle infatuated with his own whimsy.
- Francis Coppola’s winery.
- One of the Tucker cars that was featured in the movie.
- The blog of the Tucker Automobile Club of America.
- An interview with Coppola.
©1988 by Ray Sawhill