‘Back to the Future’ offers good acting, charm — but falls short of promise at the end
by Joan E Vadeboncoeur, Entertainment Editor
A 17-year-old, bored high school youth teams up with a zonked out inventor to fly a DeLorean car back in time. That’s the original, charming concept of Back to the Future, the latest pleasantry on the summer fantasy trail.
It doesn’t always measure up to its promise but, because of Michael J Fox’s performance, it keeps ticking along even when the movie’s humor and plot falters.
Fox’s film parents are a drunk and a wimp. His ambition has been dulled by their outlook on life. His daredevil spirit only manifests itself in hitching rides on cars while on a skateboard.
Doc Emmett Brown is seen as the town nut by all but Fox’s Marty McFly. The scientist’s inventions are a release from his humdrum life even when they are flops.
One hairy evening
Time is the inventor’s passion, whether a room full of clocks or the car that takes his dog out of the present. Stolen plutonium and a truckload of Libyans, who want revenge for pinball machine parts Brown passed off as secret weapons, lead to a hairy evening in which Marty winds up in 1955.
It is a puzzling life. Asking for a Pepsi Free gets the answer “you’ll pay for it.” Rock ‘n’ roll with amplified guitar frightens teen-age dancers.
Most of the assimilation into 1955 is manageable — except meeting his mother and father to be. As a high school senior, his wimpy “father” begins his 30-year servitude to a bully named Biff.
Mother looks like a dimpled virgin, but she’s available for parking sessions, and drinks and smokes. More worrisome is her attraction to Marty, rather than George, the man ordained to be her husband.
As if Marty didn’t have enough trouble figuring how to get back to 1985, he now has to fend off his “mother’s” advances and make certain she and George get together. If he fails, Marty, older brother Dave and sister Linda will never materialize.
The story is the sort of whimsical piece that appeals to Steven Spielberg, who purchased it and served as one of its executive producers. The scientific flummery, much of it like a Rube Goldberg creation, undoubtedly clinched the deal with writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
Not enough humor
But Spielberg handed over the direction to Zemeckis, who failed with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” overstaged “Used Cars” but, finally, struck gold with “Romancing the Stone.” Here, the director reverts to his old ways of overloading, especially by encouraging several principals to ham it up. Zemeckis also slacked off on humor.
Fortunately, Fox strikes the right note, keeping Marty credible, resourceful and wholly appealing. Christopher Lloyd just misses the opportunity for an Oscar nomination with Doc. Even an outsize character requires some vulnerability, especially if it leads to a finale in which his life is at stake.
Crispin Glover also falls victim to excess, while Lea Thompson elects to rely on her physical assets rather than any comedic ability.
Maybe expectations were too high for the film. Back to the Future is entertaining fluff; but it had a chance to be a winner in the “E.T.” vein. That’s what audiences will wait for — but it never comes.