Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

“The International House of Pancakes is the one consistent thing in my life.”

A motley group of individuals — including two petty bank robbers (George Dzundza and Joe Grifasi), a busty blonde (Beverly D’Angelo), an aspiring children’s book author (Beau Bridges), a pair of nuns (Geraldine Page and Deborah Rush), a middle-class family (Teri Garr, Howard Hesseman, Peter Billingsley, and Jenn Thompson), an elderly man (Hume Cronyn) and his alcoholic wife (Jessica Tandy), a pair of car thieves (Al Corley and Murphy Dunne), a prostitute (Sandra McCabe) and her flashy john (David Rasche), a songwriting trucker (Paul Jabara), a coke-sniffing hitchhiker (Daniel Stern), a jeep full of gay men, and a bus of Asian-American orphans — drive towards Florida, where the evangelist mayor (William Devane) of a small town is desperate to lure tourists.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Beau Bridges Films
  • Comedy
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Geraldine Page Films
  • Hume Cronyn Films
  • Jessica Tandy Films
  • John Schlesinger Films
  • Road Trip
  • Small Town America
  • Teri Garr Films

The brief synopsis provided above should give a clear indication that John Schlesinger’s notorious clunker (with a $24 million budget, it was the most expensive movie of its day, earning back only $500,000 at the box office) aims to be QUIRKY, in all capital letters. The very premise of the film — a small-town mayor-cum-preacher unsuccessfully attempts to bribe city officials into providing his town with an off-ramp on the new interstate freeway:

and eventually resorts to more extreme measures, including painting his entire town pink, shipping in a troupe of African safari animals, attempting to teach an elephant to water ski, and much more:

— sets it up as a wannabe “drolly comedic commentary” on the eccentricities of America. Unfortunately, however, while every single situation and character in the script seems designed to milk laughs, I never chuckled — not once.

Like most comedies, this film has its core set of devoted fans: many viewers seem to find inherent humor simply in the IDEA of a children’s story about “Ricky the Carnivorous Pony”, pronounced “Licky” by the group of generically “Asian-American” orphans; or the concept of a blonde floozy gathering her mother’s ashes from a drive-in mortuary and driving with them to Florida, accidentally allowing them to spill and be snorted by a cokehead in the meantime; or the notion of a young boy (Billingsley) who hates peeing in his RV’s urinal so much he holds it in for hours; or the portrayal of a defiant elderly woman who insists she ISN’T an alcoholic since she “only” indulges in mixed drinks and never hides her bottles:

… or the revelation that a young nun (Rush) actually longs for sensual experiences like swimming.

Well, there’s clearly no point in going on — either it works for you, or it doesn’t. The biggest mystery is why Peary includes this clunker in the back of his book, without any kind of revealing “code”. Is he a fan himself? Or does he consider it simply too historically notorious to miss? Regardless, it’s most certainly NOT must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • For me, nothing

Must See?
Absolutely NOT.


2 thoughts on “Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

  1. A road movie more akin to roadkill.

    From knowing most of Schlesinger’s movies, my guess is he saw the script as another opportunity to rub America’s face in its own shortcomings (as he did more effectively in ‘Midnight Cowboy’). That would at least explain his attraction to the overall structure and tone. Nothing can explain his attraction to the dialogue, which is quite largely a disaster.

    The screenplay is just trying sooo hard, and the effort is sooo noticeable. You notice something verrry vaguely clever at work. In there…somewhere. ~which may explain why it has a cult following of sorts: the kind of people, perhaps, who are like parents going to see their kid perform in a first-grade play. They know it’s first-grade; they know it’s amateurish on just about every level; but there’s something in it that they embrace as their ‘kid’ – and they root for that underdog element.

    Still, the quality of what’s served up here is very much ‘under’ and very much a ‘dog’.

    It has that latter-day Preminger thing going – bringing a bunch of well-known actors together to give them equal time (tho a number of them here are clearly second-tier). It also has an Altman thing in progress; that patchwork quilt pattern that made ‘Nashville’ work so well (except, in ‘Nashville’, that served a more-pronounced purpose).

    But while watching ‘HTF’, you begin to feel you’re watching a film that progressively digs its own grave. You may also find your mind wandering at times with thoughts of what you could personally do with $24 million – for yourself and for your fellow man.

    I do have to say – as ill-used as she is here, it’s a joy to see Geraldine Page. She has a richly comic face and delivery – and, as a nun, she really can’t fail, no matter what. And I did have a bit of respect for Joe Grifasi’s performance as one of the bank robbers; he makes his character layered and lovable. (Poor, valiant Cronyn, Tandy and Garr!)

    But where was the subplot for the four gay guys in the jeep?! They say just about nothing and are reduced to eye-candy… oh, right, maybe that *is* the ‘social comment’ on them. 😉

  2. One hour and 45 minutes I won’t get back!

    One can only guess he felt the need to include it as a John Schlesinger film (even though he left out “Marathon Man” and “A Kind of Loving”).

    So perhaps he liked it in a sort of grade Z Robert Altman sort of way. It couldn’t be the characters (even though a couple do stand above the fray)? Or the plot? Or the depiction of Asian orphans? Or the depiction of homosexuals (where Schlesinger made the groundbreaking for its time “Sunday Bloody Sunday”)?

    Don’t know, but as a person who tries to watch as many films from Peary’s original I’m glad to have checked it off the list. A little funny irony – I watched this on the Criterion Channel. It was listed as a film being removed in February. I got to watch “Billy Liar” and “Darling” prior to this film – way better than “Honky Tonk Freeway!”

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