Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

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Judging by its strangely half-remembered legacy, Saturday Night Fever seems like one of the silliest movies of all time. The clips I’d seen have looked totally worthless: a decadent pastel-lit romp stuffed with big hair, bigger collars and illuminated floor tiles. Having finally un-dunced myself on what’s actually a fine little piece of ’70s cinema, it seems unfair that these are the lone bits that float to the surface. All that apparent fluff, the swiveling hips and the dreadful clothes, are actually earned asides in a film that lightly encroaches on neo-realism territory.

Maybe it is fitting that this is the kind of movie where only the flash is remembered, considering its insistent focus on ephemeral pleasure as a momentary distraction. These characters, especially John Travolta’s perfectly portrayed Tony Manero, lead pretty depressing lives. In a dead end section of Brooklyn, they’re hedged in by all kinds of family and financial problems. On Saturday night, for a few hours, they’re free, but that brief freedom is really only a reminder of how unsatisfying the rest of their lives remain.

The whole thing is summed up beautifully by the opening sequence. Not the infamous ‘strut,’ where Manero wags his goods to local passerby, who’ve undoubtedly seen this display before. The one right before it, where Tony, on an errand from his paint store job, stops by a pizzeria and gobbles two nested slices (the usual) at once to save time as he rushes back to work. It’s this kind of beautiful narrative economy that makes parts of this film so striking and renders others amazingly unnecessary.

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That’s the big problem with Saturday Night Fever. As much as it may pose and as good as it may be, it’s not art. It’s a big movie, with big movie aspirations and similar limits. This means that even the social-minded points that have been glossed over, the commentary class conflict and sublimation of pain into mistreatment of women, are forcefully hammered home. We see right away that although Tony is a big man at the 2001 Odyssey club, he’s nothing anywhere else. Yet the film spends a lot of time reminding us, and because we need a big conclusion, even throws in a ‘surprise’ suicide, pushing an otherwise measured film to a hysterical pitch.

There are hosts of other inane ’70s clichés. Did we really need a gang fight? Does Tony’s father need to be so unrelentingly gruff? It feels at some points like the film grants itself two outlets for a single message: the obvious and the super-obvious. So the race issue is carefully explored, in a late scene where Tony realizes how cosseted a place his fishbowl nightclub really is. Then it’s thrashed out, in that ridiculous gang brawl.

Still, these things feel like quibbles, considering how surprisingly good Saturday Night Fever actually is. There are parts that play as shocking even for the button-pressing ’70s. The male characters are impressively unsympathetic, culminating in one amazingly uncomfortable scene, where the mom from Even Stevens, too drunk for consent, gets passed around in the back of a car while Tony drives.

Even better is the romantic storyline, where Tony repeatedly butts up against the noveau-Manhattanite uppityness of new dance partner Stephanie. It’s doubly tragic, not only because he’s a small-time schlub doomed to be stuck in Bay Ridge, but because she’s equally awkward without realizing it, a bridge and tunnel transplant with a gummy accent who’s probably equally looked down on by the bigwigs with whom she brags about consorting. Everyone here is reaching for something, it seems, and none of them quite make it.

by Jesse Cataldo
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