There’s a small trend in America--a return to simple pleasures--fueled in part by our collective frustrations over HMOs, gas prices, automated phone systems, corporate greed, fractured families, Astroturf, spotty electricity, the NASDAQ, poor waitressing, bad tires, bungled elections, fast food, slow food, sloppy kissing, bad pitching and a general sense that, with all we have going for us, life should be a little more satisfying.
With that in mind, we head off to the drive-in theater.
Now, it’s not easy finding a drive-in anymore. Used to be, you could head to the edges of any town and find four or five big screens.
At a drive-in, you could watch “Soylent Green” and eat greenish hot dogs from the snack bar.
If you stayed for the midnight feature, you’d see “Naughty Nurses” or “Candy Stripers on Harleys,” which led to a lot of guys in our group applying to medical school. In short, the drive-in theater was good for America.
“We should bring our own food,” I say, remembering the greenish hot dogs.
“I’ll make some popcorn,” my wife says before we leave.
There are a lot of things killing drive-ins. The sound still stinks. These days, you tune your radio to receive the sound, instead of listening over those crummy metal speakers. Still stinks.
Other things are killing drive-ins. Land is too valuable. Multiplexes are everywhere. And, frankly, Americans prefer air conditioning, especially when they’re sitting there doing nothing.
Yet, here we are in the city of Industry, a can-do kind of town with a refreshing lack of pretense, several topless bars and a four-screen drive-in.
The Vineland Drive-in costs five bucks a person, with children admitted free with each paying adult. At these prices, I don’t even need to hide my wife in the trunk. We pull up. We pay. We head to our spot.
There are other people meeting us here, a flotilla of drive-in families. There’s the Beverly Hills dentist and her funny husband. There’s Bill and Nancy, our baseball friends. In the back seats, 80 or so children.
“Hey, let’s go to the drive-in,” I said to them earlier in the day.
“Sure,” they all said, understanding the attraction.
So we pull in, followed by the two other cars. It’s pretty full on a Saturday night. We spread out our lawn chairs and our coolers and settle in, as if camping.
“This is great,” I say, grabbing a fist full of popcorn.
As a father, I have a low threshold for greatness. To me, greatness is a lawn chair and a cold drink. A bag of popcorn. In the city of Industry, of all places, I have found drive-in greatness.
“A little wine?” one of the fathers asks, handing me a red plastic cup.
At dusk, the movie starts, and things begin to get even better.
“It’s a double feature,” I say.
“What’s a double feature?” the little girl asks.
“Two movies in a row,” I say.
“Cool,” she says.
Even better, they are both animal flicks. First up: “Cats & Dogs.” Fellini, you ask? No, Guterman.
It is nearly impossible to capture this movie in words. Jeff Goldblum, a human, turns in an understated, nuanced performance as the misunderstood father whose lab gets trashed, unleashing (pun intended) a global plot by cats to rid the world of dogs.
Not that I figure this out right away. The first half hour, I am completely baffled by what is going on up on the screen, partly because the kids keep moving between the car and the lawn chairs and trying to sit on my lap, while Goldblum is up there giving the performance of a lifetime and Bill, a lawyer, keeps feeding me wine.
“I think you just filled my shoe,” I tell him.
“Shut up and drink,” he says.
At certain points in the movie, trains pass the drive-in, which I sort of enjoy. A train whistle makes me feel romantic.
If that isn’t enough, on a screen far off to our left, Kirsten Dunst is in a T-shirt and not much else, being tickled on a bed. Between her and the trains, it is almost more than a married man can take.
“Hey,” I ask my wife, “wanna get into the back seat?”
“What for?” she asks.
That takes care of that. I turn back to the movie and the trains.
Up on the screen, meanwhile, the beagle is stealing this flick. I don’t know his name, but I predict this beagle will be big. In one crucial scene, his brown eyes narrow and he experiences a moment I swear would remind you of Julia Roberts.
In a year, get ready for the release of “Pretty Puppy,” a rags-to-riches story starring this beagle and Richard Gere. “Two paws up!” the reviews will say. First weekend, $50 million.
“Is it over yet?” I ask my wife after a short nap.
The second half of our double feature is “Dr. Dolittle 2,” starring Eddie Murphy, a bear, a raccoon and a bunch of weasels.
“But I can talk to the animals,” Eddie Murphy keeps insisting up on the screen.
“You think you could get my kids to sit down?” I keep answering back.
“He can’t hear you,” my wife says.
As we go to leave, we find that two of our cars have dead batteries. We turn the key and get that click-click-click you get when the bendex is engaging but the starter won’t crank.
Apparently, our batteries have been deadened from running the radio for four straight hours.
There is laughter. There are tears. There’s a guy standing next to the car, with jumper cables. Like magic, he appears, ready to start us up.
Apparently, helping a stranger is making a comeback. That, and drive-ins. With renewed hope, we head for home.
Chris Erskine’s column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.