Watching the 1975 film Hearts Of The West, it’s easy to figure out why it faded into obscurity, in spite of a cast headed by Jeff Bridges and including Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin, and Blythe Danner. Unfailingly sweet and low-key almost to a fault, it’s more pleasant than excellent, the sort of film remembered fondly but faintly. But that doesn’t mean it deserves obscurity, particularly with such virtues as Bridges’ aw-shucks performance as the memorably named Lewis Tater, a Depression-era Iowa farm boy with dreams of writing Westerns. Deciding to cut out the middleman, he travels to the address listed on the brochure of the University Of Titan Correspondence School (“at the foot of the beautiful, silver-veined, Shoshone Mountains”), which promises a class for those hoping to write about the old West. But when he arrives, Bridges finds only a post-office box and, eventually, a pair of crooks looking to take would-be Zane Greys for all they’ve got.
Through a series of mishaps, Bridges ends up absconding with their ill-gotten gains and hooking up with a low-rent movie-production company run by Arkin and featuring a no-nonsense, pants-wearing script girl (Danner) and a clutch of cowboy background players overseen by Griffith. Looking for material and employment, Bridges returns with them to Hollywood, only to find that the crooks have tracked him there, and that his new companions have their own potential for treachery, albeit of a less flagrant kind.
An innovative adman who later had a big comedy hit with the 1980 film Private Benjamin, director Howard Zieff doesn’t bring much visual flair or gift for pacing to his comedy. Instead he lets his cast relax into their parts as they play off Bridges’ youthful naïf in ways that reveal their own character. Danner treats him with a mix of concern and desire, Griffith offers him advice on the cowboy acting game (but always a moment too late), and Arkin tries to take advantage of his remarkable screen presence, a gift Bridges doesn’t know he has. Nor does he necessarily want it. Bridges’ desire to be a writer informs his actions so much that his intense focus on observing the details often means he misses what’s going on around him, which is the source of some of the film’s funniest moments, not to mention the poignancy underscoring it all: While trying to write romantic tales of cowboy adventure—the film’s title comes from the novel he totes around with him in hopes of finding a publisher—Bridges stumbles into the unglamorous task of playing a cowboy for a meager weekly sum. The scenes in which he tries to elude the bad guys go nowhere, and the plot only kicks in during the last act, and then only briefly. But the depiction of a kid who’s doesn’t realize he’s likely destined to get this close to his dreams without seeing them come true makes it worth remembering.
Key features: Just a trailer.