The Austin Chronicle

The Fantasticks

Rated PG, 86 min. Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Joel Grey, Barnard Hughes, Jonathon Morris, Joe McIntyre, Jean Louisa Kelly, Brad Sullivan, Teller.

REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 10, 2000

There are times in this 1995 film version of the enormously popular Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt stage musical when you get the feeling you're in a time warp, that what you're watching is really a lost movie musical from the 1960s. It has that bygone style, in which impossibly innocent ingenues suddenly break into blissfully tuneful song before widescreen, Technicolor vistas, when throngs of townsfolk twirl in perfect unison down the avenue of some picturesque ideal of an American town. Some of that is obviously due to the material, which goes back 40 years and was not updated appreciably for the film. But much more of it has to do with the treatment of the material by director Michael Ritchie. In filming this sweet saga of young lovers pushed into each other's arms by their scheming fathers, Ritchie employs a nostalgic period setting, extravagant production design long on artifice, breathtaking Western landscapes (captured luxuriantly in good old Panavision by the lens of cinematographer Fred Murphy), lush orchestrations (from Broadway legend Jonathan Tunick), and unabashedly broad comedic and romantic performances, all of which recalls those glossy, melodic, captivating musicals of the Fifties and Sixties. There are gingerbread farmhouses fronted by lush rows of towering sunflowers and cornstalks, and a fantastically extravagant carnival, complete with lurid sideshow canvases hawking exotic performers, as well as a mysterious rogue who's equal parts cavalier, con man, and magician (El Gallo, played by Jonathan Morris with swashbuckling authority, smoldering charm, and eyes that have seen too much). There are a pair of moonstruck youths -- Joe McIntyre, formerly of the New Kids on the Block, whose adolescent haplessness is endearing, and Jean Louisa Kelly, whose freshness of face and unrestrained tenderness are heart-melting -- whose love affair is almost wrecked by the seductive lure of the world represented by the carnival and fathers who love their children enough to fake a feud for them. (Joel Grey's performance might not quite rival his turn as the Emcee in Bob Fosse's film version of Cabaret, but it is a potent reminder of what a glorious performer he is.) Fans of the stage play may be shocked to hear how Ritchie's vision for the piece departs so radically from the original's minimal sets and costumes. But the beauty of Ritchie's approach is that it embraces the theatricality of the tale even as it opens it up cinematically. El Gallo and the carnival are all greasepaint and canvas, illusions that play on the audience's imaginations; it is a movie in love with theatre. In fact, with this film, Ritchie -- whose career has been built on satire and hard-edged looks at life in America -- shows us love: toward theatre, toward musicals, toward romance, toward memories of youth. Its warmth and lyricism are surprising and beguiling. The movie failed to win theatrical release five years ago because studio heads were convinced that young audiences today wouldn't accept the story's innocence or the artificiality of the musical style. They may have a point, I don't know. But I know that moviegoers of a certain age will relate to The Fantasticks, to the way it celebrates a type of film that they grew up on and that shaped their sense of romance and the way it sings in your heart and moves you to move. That's worth celebrating, at least where us old farts are concerned, for as Jones and Schmidt wistfully remind us, “Deep in December, it's nice to remember the fire of September that made you mellow. Deep in December, our hearts should remember and follow, follow. Follow.”

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