Jun 07, 2021
By Dustin Krcatovich
Big ensemble comedies are always, and have always been, a gamble. They’re expensive, maintaining coherence is next to impossible, and skeptical audiences know that they’ll probably only get five minutes max of whatever star they’re there to see. For every Grand Hotel or Muppet Movie, there are at least a dozen garbage films like Valentine’s Day out there to prove they’re a bad idea.
Luckily, while 1981’s Honky Tonk Freeway does fall victim to some of the excesses of ensemble comedy, it makes up for it in truckloads of gonzo silliness. Its episodic rhythm and moon-eyed Americana put it in the same lineage as ‘70s Altman classics like Nashville, but it’s dopier and plays more for belly laughs. Somewhat surprisingly, it came from John Schlesinger, the Brit director responsible for prestigious fare like Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man; it’s an outlier in his catalog, which along with the box office failure and critical drubbing it received upon initial release may account for why it took so long to make it to blu-ray. Too bad: it’s a fun ride, and a surprisingly sharp critique of American “progress”.
The primary focus of the film is the small town of Ticlaw, Florida, a tourist trap with a safari park, a nice hotel, and not much else. The state is building a stretch of interstate through the area, but nixes an exit to Ticlaw despite the best efforts and bribes of the town’s mayor (William Devane). The town is determined to circumvent this setback, and resorts to increasingly drastic measures to pull in tourists.
Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to a gaggle of travelers who find themselves careening along the aforementioned interstate. There’s the quirky childrens book writer (Beau Bridges) who falls in love with a smalltown femme fatale (Beverly D’Angelo) carrying her mother’s ashes to the sea; two comically mismatched bank robbers (George Dzundza and Joe Grifasi); the snarky hippie coke dealer hitching to the Super Bowl (Daniel Stern); the Typical American Middle Class Family™ with a massive RV (Teri Garr and Howard Hesseman); and plenty more cartoonish gag-catchers besides.
By and large, Honky Tonk Freeway is a pretty solid, well-paced satire of American culture at the dawn of the 1980s. As with so much comedy, some bits have aged poorly in the ensuing four decades (“cringe”, I believe the kids are calling it now), but there’s also plenty that is timelessly funny.
The 4K restoration on this blu-ray edition does the film justice, and the sound is nice and crisp. The bonus features are scant (commentary, theatrical trailer), but this isn’t really the sort of thing one approaches as an amateur scholar, so it’s fine.
Given its failure at the box office, John Schlesinger may have left this world thinking of Honky Tonk Freeway as a stain on his record. I understand this position, but I respectfully disagree: while it may never get classic status like Midnight Cowboy, Honky Tonk Freeway has plenty of kicks to sell it, and deserved better than it got. It’s never too late to correct the record!