Getting Straight

 

When he made 1970's Getting Straight, Stunt Man director Richard Rush was, like his protagonist, a man caught between worlds, between the stodgy old men who call the shots and the long-haired kids threatening/promising to tear it apart and build something better in its place. After graduating from UCLA, Rush made films for the U.S military before doing his time in the counterculture trenches for Roger Corman, pumping out exploitation movies with telltale titles like Psych-Out and Hells Angels On Wheels. With Getting Straight, Rush had graduated to a major studio (Columbia) and a budget big enough to accommodate a gaudy gallery of New Wave stylistic tricks.

Elliott Gould lends his lanky frame, bushy crumb-catcher mustache, and hippie Groucho Marx persona to the role of a charismatic grad student who returns to college after a stint in Vietnam to pick up his master's degree and buy into a system he's ambivalent about at best. Like many anti-heroes of the '60s and '70s, Gould is irreverent, witty, prone to fits of self-righteousness, and a condescending chauvinistic pig, in this case to girlfriend Candice Bergen. Gould supposedly has progressive views on race and education, but he still expects sex, dinner, and naïve adoration from his women. As he works toward his degree and an uncertain future, he's increasingly asked to align himself with either his future academic colleagues or angry activists.

Getting Straight belongs to a curious, half-forgotten subset of Woodstock-era movies dedicated to shaggy-haired hippie types smoking pot, dropping acid, getting involved in campus unrest, and having conversations about war, capitalism, the generation gap, and other weighty issues. Rush undercuts the subgenre's innate didacticism with a light touch and a playful, assured visual style; he never lets audiences forget there's a surplus of authorial intelligence behind the camera. Gould is in a unique position to see the weaknesses of the stodgy academic establishment and the confused counterculture alike, but as it enters its third act, the film grows less ambiguous and more heavy-handed, bottoming out with a scene where Gould's academic future comes down to pretending to agree with a professor's vehement assertion that F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay. When it finally, conclusively chooses sides, Getting Straight turns into the shrill, clumsy message movie it threatened to become all along.

Key features: None.

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