Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Outside Like a Planet

I'm not against melodrama on principle. If big, unlikely circumstances strung together are entertaining and they help develop characters, I see no reason not to go for it. But melodrama can sink a story, which is I think the problem with Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film The Outsiders, a movie with a lot of good, unexpectedly sweet qualities which is diminished by an effort to create moral balance with broad plot developments.

This movie has Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio, all before they were stars, but the story's centred on a fourteen year-old kid named Ponyboy played by C. Thomas Howell. Swayze and Lowe play his brothers, Darrel and Sodapop--they're his only family and they live together in the bad part of town. We never get to see what sort of cruel parents gave their kids names like "Ponyboy" and "Sodapop" because they were hit by a train some years before*. The three brothers, along with Cruise, Estevez, and Dillon, are all greasers belonging to a gang called, appropriately enough "The Greasers."

Their rivals are the Socs, wealthy kids from the nice part of town, among whom is Cherry, an adorable Diane Lane, who hits it off with Ponyboy and Johnny (Macchio) at a drive-in movie.

Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dallas form a central trio in the movie with the other gang members being more or less periphery. Broadly speaking, the scene of a girl from a rival gang growing grudgingly fond of the hoods is a standard enough pattern, but I love how Coppola executes it here. Dallas is just out of prison, and he comes on too strong with the girls, whispering in Cherry's ear while she's trying to watch the movie and making crude remarks. But we don't take him as a villain, in fact his overbearing quality seems clumsy and oddly vulnerable, even as he's quite confident, reminding me of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

Cherry warms up to Ponyboy and Johnny more, but only in a sort of big sister way. Later that night, Johnny stabs a Soc to death, but the two never stop seeming like vulnerable kids as they take it on the lam on advice from Dallas. You watch them nervously meeting with Dallas at a bar (run by Tom Waits in a cameo) where Johnny receives a pistol from the older boy and there's great tension as one watches the two who are unmistakably children and you worry about the questionable decisions they're making about a dangerous set of circumstances.

This first part of the movie works so well, and then Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dallas rescue a bunch of small children from a burning building. It's digested later a bit as it relates to feelings of self-worth among the boys, but mainly it seems to be in the movie to prove to the other characters and perhaps the audience that these boys are good in spite of everything. We, the audience, didn't need that, though. It shows perhaps the shallowness of those who accept and admire the boys afterwards who gave them only scorn before, but I don't feel like that was needed, either.

Macchio as Johnny is a weak link, too, his performance being a little two one-note for all has to carry, but there's enough really good character stuff in this movie to make me sorry it has to deviate into a sort of anthem.

*I wonder if Ponyboy is considered a sort of proto-brony.

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