The Sugarland Express (1974)

Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) spots an old Road Runner cartoon across the street at the drive through theater. “I wish there was sound,” she says. Her husband, Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) volunteers to be the sound, attempting to recreate the various famous noises associated with the classic cartoons. But amid their laughter, Clovis is struck by how harrowing the violence is, bringing him back down to reality.

And that reality is that he and his wife are fugitives who’ve kidnapped Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) and are going to Sugarland, Texas to kidnap their own child. It is his wife’s idea; she’s naïve and doesn’t understand the full extent and repercussions of her actions, almost seeing life as if she is in a Warner Brothers cartoon. But Clovis has an idea of how this might all end up and it can’t be good.

In a lot of ways, The Sugarland Express can be seen as a median between two similar films. The first is Bonnie and Clyde, the on the run film about the infamous duo. The Sugarland Express is a more southern (if that’s even possible) take on the film, almost a satire of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s not directly referential, but it does feel as if it is capturing that same spirit but suggesting different things about the characters, the nativity of Lou Jean and the inability for Clovis to take the lead.

The other film is Raising Arizona. The comedic romp of the Coen Brothers has a number of striking similarities to the plot of The Sugarland Express, but goes farther into the cartoonish vibe. In The Sugarland Express, the characters are treated as far more dramatic and human, giving it the weight of something like Bonnie and Clyde but with the levity of Raising Arizona.

Therefore, Spielberg has to walk this fine line between having fun with the characters and making fun of them. It’s a hard thing to contrast, and there certainly are moment where it seems like the film could be making fun of them, but on the whole it gives them a lot more sympathy and emotion than one might expect on first impressions but while still jabbing and critiquing the characters.

What doesn’t help is the performance of Goldie Hawn. She plays it up as a bit top stereotypically Southern with her tangy voice and ditsy personality. Luckily, the writing saves her some, but she takes the persona a bit too far at times and comes across as hammy by the end of the film. William Atherton does a good job of grounding the couple a bit more by being more of the straight man and giving a much more human and believable performance that doesn’t smack of stereotype.

However, all this can be seen as a bit moot because the film simply doesn’t have enough plot development to sustain itself. There aren’t enough conflicts and enough tension here to keep this film going all the way to the end. It noticeably lags throughout because there isn’t that much going on. The characters can keep things interesting, but they are too nice and amiable among themselves, making a good portion of this road trip a bit dull.

Overall, the impression is weak. Spielberg does a good job at striking an odd balance of tones, but the story simply cannot sustain itself. Some may not care, already having been won over by the characters to care whether or not the film is moving along at 60 MPH or a paltry 10 MPH. They’ll laugh, maybe cry, and have a good old time. But some might find the film frustrated, akin stuck behind an old person driving at half the speed limit, whishing the film would pick itself up and movie. In the end, it’s a bit of both. Some moments fly, other drag, making the overall experience a bit jerky and hampering a lot of the film’s merits.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing