Ignore the Martini Movies label that encourages you to take this film as laughable camp. It's a strong, moving story that both illuminates its particular point in history (1971) & has a lot to say about more timeless themes as well. Based upon a play, it does a better job than most of truly capturing the tone & uncertainties of the end of the 1960s, especially the pall that the draft lottery cast over every young man back then. Yet in its exploration of first love, the need to find one's self, the fears & urgency of transitioning to adulthood, it's also quite relevant to this day.
First of all, the cast is excellent. Hard to believe that Michael Douglas could be that boyish! But he finds just the right balance between gnawing doubt & overconfidence in his portrayal of Jerry, a college student & gifted musician struggling to decide what he wants from life. When he meets Vanetta (a warm & wonderful Brenda Vacarro), he experiences his first adult relationship with a woman, both its joys & complications. What strikes me about these scenes is just how open, vulnerable, and passionate Jerry is with Vanetta -- no games, no hipster poses, no cynicism. The sexuality & nudity here are definitely depicted as positive, life-affirming things, a wonderful mystery to be unfolded between two people discovering the depths of their own yearnings.
Jerry is given more dimension in his role as Big Brother to Marvis, a smart mouthed boy concealing his fears beneath a shield of attitude. This relationship is handled well -- Jerry is anything but the noble, paternal white man helping a black child, the self-absorbed do-gooder without real feeling -- he genuinely wants to help Marvis if he can, but he knows that he's stumbling every step of the way. And he also knows that Marvis has just as much to teach him.
Even more impressive is the relationship with his parents, played by Jack Warden & Barbara Bel Geddes. It would have been very easy to make them nothing more than cardboard targets ... but the story is smarter than that. They're caring, complex people, not quite sure of what the world has become, wanting the best for their son but not really understanding what he's going through. But then, Jerry himself doesn't fully understand that either. The foundation of love in this family is what makes the final scenes of the film so devastating.
Much of this is timeless material -- we all go through it. But let's also consider the time-specific aspects of the film. As someone who waited under the pall of the draft lottery myself, I can attest that the film captures that sense of dread, that gnawing moral struggle of what to do if my number came up. I was lucky enough to be spared -- unlike Jerry, whose newly discovered life is now in jeopardy. What does he do? Does he go to fight & die in a war he doesn't believe in? Does he flee to Canada? Does he go to jail? And all along, we're reminded that he's still a young man, not completely formed, asked to make the same crucial choice so many others had to make in real life.
Many films about the 1960s made in that era fail to do the complexity of the times any justice. But this one comes reasonably close. It has some flaws, some concessions to commercial appeal; but I feel it does make an honest effort to get things right. A few unfortunate homophobic jokes, while accurate to the time, remind us that the counterculture wasn't always quite as enlightened & open as it liked to believe; these may make you wince. Overall, though, it remains a film worth watching -- recommended!