Leonard Gardner, who helped adapt one of his own short stories into the new movie "Valentino Returns" (Century 14), is a writer with real presence. You can sense his point of view behind every line he writes, whether it's about about the washed-up, journeymen boxers in "Fat City," which John Huston and he made into a minor film classic in 1972, or the small-town Central California people he and director Peter Hoffman portray here.
Like "Fat City," "Valentino Returns" is about the absurdity and nightmarish underside of part of the American Dream. It's about losers who try to dream themselves into winners, big-mouths and battered women and small-town lives wasting away in the smoke and honky-tonk braggadocio of the local barrooms. But where "Fat City" came close to a tragedy of the commonplace, this movie is a teen-age sex comedy, another '50s nostalgia picture. Don't let that put you off. It's slow getting started and it has flaws, but it's better-remembered and funnier than many of its competitors.
The central character, Wayne Gibbs, is played with winningly bemused understatement by ex-rodeo rider and "Lonesome Dove" co-star Barry Tubbs. He's a farm worker who has just bought a pink Cadillac that he's christened Valentino Returns, in which he intends to cruise to sex and glory. Complicating matters are his parents, an incorrigible would-be ladies' man (Frederic Forrest) and his incurably fed-up wife (Veronica Cartwright), and Wayne's pathologically unreliable buddy, Harry (Seth Isler), who claims to have an assortment of randy divorcees and hot-to-trot Swedish models on call, all or most of whom prove to be fictitious.
This familiar material becomes funny because it's such a clear-eyed look at the dreams most other teen-sex movies try to indulge. The two men closest to Wayne, his dad and Harry, cling to their fantasies with terrifying intensity, even in the face of injury or chaos. Wayne is more distanced, an observer; he sees the things others miss. There is one local girl to whom he's attracted, a fetchingly reckless blonde named Sylvia (Jenny Wright). Unfortunately, she proves to be a fireball guarded by a dragon: the town slut and daughter of a religious fanatic.
That's one of the cleverest insights of "Valentino Returns" into small-town American life: the crazy dialectic between puritanism and lechery, family and irresponsibility, home and the city's beckoning, sex-soaked nights. The key scene is a local tent-revival--the sign outside says "Christ has returned to Earth and preaches here nightly"--where Wayne and Harry run into Sylvia and her parents, and where a typically ecstatic, brow-beating sermon is interrupted by a smirking biker (Miguel Ferrer). It's typical '50s symbolism from the decade where movie biker-delinquents like Brando and James Dean became twisted Christ figures in pop mythology. But it's also a joke about the aspirations of the two pink-Cadillac cruisers, who worship the night and easy sex as fervently as their neighbors seek a savior who will banish guilt and sin.
Though the picture's control seems to improve as it goes on, first-time director Hoffman shows very little visual style. There's barely a memorable image anywhere, except perhaps the final going-down-the-road shot. But Hoffman is good with the actors. He fills the sound track with prime late-'50s rock 'n' roll, and he and his cast catch some of the restless ambience that the music fed. Tubbs, Wright, Forrest, Cartwright, Isler and many of the minor characters, including Gardner himself as Forrest's sneaky-eyed pal Lyle, have fine moments.
In some ways, Gardner is a poet of the casualties of the American Dream. But he's a poet who can smile. "Valentino Returns" (MPAA rated R for sex and language) is about people who are headed toward the smoky, beer-soaked cul-de-sacs of a "Fat City" but haven't quite reached them yet, or who have a chance--a faint chance--of breaking out. At its best, it has the giddy jocularity of a good laugh at things too deep-down rooted to cry about, too catastrophic to even try to fix.