Film Review: Four Friends (1981)

(source: tmdb.org)

Any attempt to capture 1960s – arguably the most eventful and colourful decade of 20th Century – in a single feature film is challenging, if not doomed to failure. Difficulties of such endeavour become apparent even when film makers take somewhat unconventional approach, like in the case of Four Friends, 1981 drama directed by Arthur Penn.

The film is based on the semi-autobiographical script of Steve Tesich. Protagonist, Danilo Prozor, is, just like the author, Serb who came from Yugoslavia to USA as an immigrant in his early teens. After the prologue, in which young Danilo reunites with his father (played by Miklos Simon), worker in Indiana steelyards, the plot begins in 1961. We are introduced to adult Danilo (played by Craig Wasson) as high school student who hangs out with his best friends, members of school's band. One is Tom (played by Jim Metzler), popular sports jock; another is David (played by Michael Huddleston), overweight son of local Jewish mortician; third is Georgia Miles (played by Jodi Thelen), beautiful free-spirited girl who dreams of becoming dancer and claims to be reincarnation of Isadora Duncan. All three boys love Georgia, but she wants to lose virginity to Danilo. When he refuses his offer, she breaks his heart by going with Tom. Danilo, much to displeasure of his father, goes to college when he befriends his rich and terminally ill room mate Louie (played by Reed Birney). He later dates and marries Louie's sister Adrienne (played by Julia Murray), but this ends tragically. When he returns to Indiana, he sees that Georgia had Tom's baby only for Tom to join Army and fight in Vietnam; she formally married David but actually went to live in New York as a bohemian. Danilo tries to rebuild his life, but reuniting with Georgia appears to be his only key to happiness.

Four Friends was directed by Arthur Penn, one of the most celebrated directors of New Hollywood and he had relatively good cast at his disposal. Craig Wasson, one of the most underrated actors of his generation, is doing quite well in complex role of character torn between various identities, ambitions and affections. Relatively unknown Jodi Thelen is also handling her thankless role well and allows audience to sympathise with her character despite Georgia being written as smug, irresponsible and over-promiscuous. Four Friends fails because of Tesich's script which, due to epic scope of the subject, leaves too much subplots unresolved and the idea of having great historical events of 1960s frame the story isn't handled well. Some of the tragic incidents that happen in the film are simply too bizarre and Four Friends after them looks like an unintentional black comedy. The worst is, apparently abandoned, experiment with voice over narration that switches from character to character making the plot even more confusing than not. Viewers from the areas of former Yugoslavia would probably find interesting that the music soundtrack by Elizabeth Swados uses motives from "Tamo daleko", Serb folk that is often associated with Serb nationalism (which made Four Friends banned in Communist Yugoslavia for that particular reason). Apart from this and few more interesting details, there aren't many reasons why should anyone bother to watch Four Friends. 1960s were better covered by less ambitious but more coherent films.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

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