The Parents Aren’t Alright
Although it was made in 1971 under the Universal Pictures banner, Milos Forman’s wildly entertaining English language debut, Taking Off, feels more like an independent film than it does a studio picture. This can be traced back to the breakout success of Easy Rider, which inspired Universal to hire up-and-coming young directors to make low-budget films in which they could let their creativity run amok. In the case of Czechoslovakian transplant Forman, the resulting project became a freewheeling, off-the-cuff satire that captured the spirit of the times with hilariously reckless abandon. Nearly forty years later, Taking Off remains as funny and sharp as ever.
From the opening moments, it becomes immediately clear that in his relocation to America, Forman has lost none of the elements that made his Czech New Wave films so invigorating. As an endless parade of young females sing into the camera, it feels more like we’re watching a documentary than a narrative feature. That’s because we are. Forman’s early work is most notable for his selection of candid moments over calculated ones. There’s something in the way he captures these real faces that is more like an inquisitive photographer than a narrative filmmaker. He elicits casual, unforced performances from his lead actors as well, who appear to be having the time of their lives. In this case, Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin are Larry and Lynn Tyne, parents of a young teenage girl who has run away from their suburban New York home and fled into the city in order to attend the audition session that is so brilliantly interspersed throughout the film. Henry embarks on a mission with his friend Tony (Tony Harvey) to find her, but instead, he ends up getting plastered at a bar and biting into an unpeeled hardboiled egg. Eventually the daughter returns, only to leave again, sending her parents on a raucous journey in which they begin to find themselves acting like irresponsible teenagers themselves.
Forman’s blending of documentary and fiction, especially with regards to Henry’s portrayal of Larry and the interspersed audition footage, feels like an early precursor to Craig Zobel’s excellent Great World of Sound, but with Taking Off, Forman’s target is a much different hypocrisy. For him, the parents aren’t merely as juvenile and childlike as their drug-abusing children. They’re more so, for they clearly don’t grasp the concept that kids are kids and no amount of role-playing will allow their square old selves to see the light. Things reach a head at a meeting of the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children, where the gathered adults all smoke pot for the first time, guided by a hilarious Vincent Schiavelli, who makes his screen debut. This scene is an absolute classic, which gets funnier as the drug starts to spin the clueless, stoned parents into a dizzy confusion.
Forman’s most impressive gift as a director, especially in this particular film, is his ability to combine exaggerated satire with genuine human emotions and interactions. No matter how outlandish the scenes become, the performances remain convincing and humane. Taking Off is a sterling example of how warm, credible acting can keep an otherwise ludicrous story from spinning off the rails. The combination of Forman’s loose directing and his actors’ fine performances is one that rings fascinating and authentic to this very day.
Music rights have contributed to Taking Off’s home video status being in limbo, but a recent successful Forman retrospective at MoMA has inspired a six-day run of the film beginning today and running through June 23rd. While this might seem an odd choice for a website devoted to exciting new under-the-radar films, all one has to do is watch Taking Off to realize that it has a more genuine H2N spirit than most of the independent films being release by the mini-majors today. Taking Off might be firmly rooted in 1971, but its energy and spirit is timeless. Filmmakers and film lovers: see this movie if you know what’s good for you.
— Michael Tully