The Seventies were so awash in Fifties nostalgia that it's surprising Going All the Way, the 1970 best seller by South Beach resident and FIU writing professor Dan Wakefield, 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 is a Hoosier, and his Midwest is a Norman Rockwell town, the sort of place 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 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 whom Sonny held in awe 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 -- which is shot in almost exactly the same distorted way as the hilarious scuba scene in The Graduate -- is grotesque. His parents (John Lordan and Jill Clayburgh, the latter of whom starred in the film adaption of another Wakefield novel, Starting Over) 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 "sophisticated" mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is clearly a more exotic sexual possibility. Until 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. Not a thousand miles away is New York City -- a wonderland filled with artists and writers. Even less realistic, Sonny's parents see the Big Apple as the center of modern perdition.
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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.
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; on the realism scale Going All the Way is somewhere between the Bogdanovich classic and American Graffiti. 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 re-creating the look and feel of the period. (Contrary to what you might have been led to believe by 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.
Written by Dan Wakefield, based on his novel; 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.