Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Handle with Care or The Strange Vice of Mr Napier

It started with just a select group of professionals who used it to network while on the job. Late in the decade, however, it's function was morphed (or warped depending on your POV), and it became a popular tool for social interaction, information dissemination, emergency use and other more nefarious communication purposes. Groups of users, large and small, formed networks often using aliases and their own stylized language to converse with each other. I first gained access to this network in 1977, when I purchased one of these:

Jonathan Demme's 1977 film Handle with Care (aka Citizen's Band) delivers a lighthearted, loving and fairly accurate portrayal of the 70's CB craze. While movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit used CBs as props, Demme used it as the lynch pin and catalyst which effects all the characters in his film. The opening shot of a modulating CB sets it up immediately as the conduit through which all the characters (real or imagined) are drawn and interact. The cacophony of voices coming out of the CB are also a humorous and a fair representation of what one may have heard coming from CB radios back in the 70's.

The stories and characters that come after the opening credits, although played for laughs at times, provide a somewhat more serious subtext about community and family, both real and artificial, and how we fail to communicate with one another despite our fancy technology. The theme is still very relevant in today's culture with all of our advanced communication gadgets. That the CB was an anonymous communication tool that could be used for good or ill echoes today's internet.

Synopsis: A young man in the small midwest town of Union volunteers as a REACT monitor while taking care of his aging father, persuing his ex-girlfriend and trying to clean up the citizen's band.

The strength of the film is in its colorful characters and standout cast which includes Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Bruce McGill, Marcia Rodd, Charles Napier, Roberts Blossom, Alix Elias and Ed Begley Jr. The main protagonist "Spider", played nicely by Paul Le Mat, is a frustrated REACT monitor who is reluctantly breaking up with his gym coach girlfriend, played by Candy Clark, while trying to convince his brother to help out with their aging father played superbly by Roberts Blossom. The dramatic core of the film is the interplay that takes place with these characters who are all quite believable in their roles.

The B-story involves some very amusing female trouble for Charles Napier's trucker character "Chrome Angel". Of all the character's Napier has played, he's said this one was his favorite, and it's easy to see why. At heart, he's a likable, stand-up, blue collar guy, but with a streak of good old American hypocrisy hidden in his pants. In one scene, while visiting his regular prostitute "Hot Coffee" (played perfectly by Alix Elias), he praises his wife for getting the "dirty books" removed from their kid's school while at the same time negotiating what kind of sex act he'll be doing with Hot Coffee.

Between Le Mat's and Napier's story lines, the film moves right along at a comfortable clip, alternating between light comedy with somewhat more serious drama, but still manages an even tone despite the serious subtext. There's a few nice directorial touches by Demme as in the opening credits sequence, but the heart of the film is in its characters, theme and story. At times, some of the ancillary characters get stereotypical to the point of cartoonish, but for the most part, this is a minor distraction. The only real problem with the movie was the too wrapped up ending in which each loose end had a TV-style resolution. It would have been more believable to leave a few loose threads. But Le Mat's and Napier's characters alone make the film a solid watch, and overall, it's an enjoyable love letter to the CB era with themes about community and family and our inability to communicate despite having the tools to do so that still resonate today. Final score:


Very Cool -  Richard Bright, who played Al Neri in The Godfather movies and Burt in Rancho Deluxe, has a small role here as a service station owner named "Smilin' Jack".

Not so much - The twangy, cornball, V/O sign off at the end feels incredibly tacked on and is super cringe inducing. 

WTF! - Apparently, cows do indeed crap sideways!

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