Universal continues the look back before the beard with The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg’s theatrical directorial debut.
The Sugarland Express is one of those movies that proves you can have all the right pieces, but still not complete the puzzle. It was the return to the screen for Oscar winner Goldie Hawn, and the first theatrical film for Steven Spielberg, but the film never seems to reach the potential of anyone involved.
Based on true events, The Sugarland Express tells the story of Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), two hard timers who had their baby taken by welfare while they were in their respective prisons. As Lou Jean gets out of her incarceration first, she attempts to get her child back, only to be given the run around by the welfare office who has turned the child over to a foster home in Sugarland. Lou Jean decides to take matters into her own hands and breaks Clovis out of the minimum security parole jail he’s currently in, with only four months left to his sentence.
As typically seems to happen in these tales, things go bad and the two refugees suddenly find themselves hijacking a car, and eventually finding a hostage in police officer Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks). This only degrades the situation and the couple (with officer in tow) quickly find themselves pursued by half the police in Texas. As the story unfolds, the couple also gain the support of the public in their quest to get their baby back, hence the advertising line "Every cop in the state was after her. Everybody else was behind her".
The film has a lot of things going for it. Goldie Hawn’s performance is spectacular, although the character itself is an annoying spoiled white trash brat. It’s one of those instances where the character is played so well, the audience quickly finds themselves not liking her. William Atherton’s career has ended up with him playing mostly stuffy, snobby characters, so it’s interesting to look earlier in his career where he plays a southern jailbird character. It’s a great performance and it makes me curious why his career hasn’t had more variety in it. Michael Sacks and Ben Johnson put in excellent time as the officer hostage and the police captain respectively. They both play solid diverse characters that are caught in a conflict between their duties against their sympathy for Lou Jean and Clovis’s plight. Behind the camera Spielberg’s touch is noticeable in the direction and selection of camera shots, and the film marks the first joint venture between Spielberg and composer John Williams, a relationship that has continued through all of Spielberg’s films
The movie is flawed however, mostly in the story. The performances by Hawn and Atherton are so solid you quickly recognize that these are not the best of people. They start the movie in jail (or just released) and have done bad things in the past - we’re not talking murder, but rather petty crimes, although serious enough to be locked up for them. The problem is, once we recognize these are not good people, it’s hard to sympathize with them, and it becomes especially hard to feel for them as the movie moves on and they continue doing bad things in their mission to get their child back. Yeah it’s cute that Hawn steals gold tickets at any convenience store they come to, but it’s still stealing. There really isn’t anything to endear us to the characters, and if the character’s actions aren’t enough, Clovis continually reminds himself (and us) they’re "in a bunch of trouble"
Also a stretch of the public’s imagination are the actions of the police force, who allow the two renegades to carry on for an extremely long time. They are allowed not only to continue on their trip to Sugarland, but also multiple stops, ripping off the previously mentioned gold tickets among other things. Their antics just wouldn’t be allowed, regardless of whether they had an officer as a hostage. On top of that, out of nowhere comes the public’s support of what the couple is doing. It isn’t conveyed really well on screen how the public learns Lou Jean and Clovis’s story, other then seeing a few news crews here and there, so the amount of support they get seems... well, unjustified.
Overall as a movie The Sugarland Express is a bit of a miss, despite having great talent and the beginnings of a legendary director. The best that can be said is the film has some nice lighthearted moments despite the situations the characters are in. I mean really, when can you miss when you have a character threatening to shoot a port-a-john?
The Sugarland Express has been released at the same time as the new Collector’s Edition of Duel, Spielberg’s directorial debut. Duel had a great look back at the origins and filming of the movie by both its director and writer. You would think Spielberg’s first theatrical film would deserve an equally cool release. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get it.
In fact, The Sugarland Express gets no extras whatsoever. No featurettes looking back at its making. No discussion from Goldie Hawn as to why this was the film she chose to return to the big screen with after her Oscar win and subsequent break from acting. No look at what about mediocreThe Sugarland Express showed enough potential for Spielberg to be given a shot at Jaws. Nothing. Well, we get the theatrical trailer which is terrible – the trailer, not the inclusion of it. I don't really see including the trailer as much of an extra. Frankly, theatrical trailers should be mandatory for DVD releases. If you’re going to give us the film, then let us appreciate the advertising for the film as well.
At least the film looks and sounds good, but the lack of any extras shows that Universal had no interest in releasing The Sugarland Express for any reason other then to cash in on the decent release of Duel. The two DVDs even bear similar labels bragging the films as Spielberg’s firsts, and the advertisement card inside both DVD cases announces both films’ release to DVD. It’s an unfortunate marketing attempt that will most likely land bare bones copies of Sugarland in many people’s homes.
With no extra features, and a mediocre movie itself, The Sugarland Express isn’t worth much more then a quick looksee by fans of Spielberg who haven’t caught it before. If you want to see a better chase film from Spielberg, pick up a copy of Catch Me If You Can which also is based on a real story and has a lot more bang for your buck with a DVD that gives you a fair amount of extras.