Corvette Summer

Little red corvette
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Matthew Robbins
Starring: 
Mark Hamill, Annie Potts, Eugene Roche, Danny Bonaduce
The Setup: 
Guy gets his custom Corvette stolen, tries to get it back.
Discussion: 

This movie has been in my mind since I was a wee child of 10 as “the only movie Mark Hamill made before Star Wars.” And then it turned out to be one of his few other roles. It also sounded like some 70s teen comedy centered around cars and girls, and I thought what the hell, I need to see that.

We open with a car getting crushed at a junkyard. Mark Hamill as Kenny is there, apparently on some sort of class field trip [is that Danny Bonaduce as well? Why, yes it is]. He sees this busted-up Corvette about to be crushed, and freaks out, running across the junkyard and saving it in a knick of time. It looks broken beyond repair to me [and how much of the original car would be left anyway?], but nevertheless he buys it and takes it back to his shop, where we have a montage of him and his buddies working to fix it up.

We then catch a glimpse of Kenny’s home life, living in a trailer with his mother. He’s trailer trash! She comes home from one date and promptly tells another guy to come on over. Kenny goes to a school dance [where they are playing a paintive 70s ballad called “Give Me the Night”] and sneaks into the auto repair shop to caress his baby. Mr. McGrath, his mentor, discusses how Kenny is sort of an Auto savant—that is, he’s barely scraping through his academic classes, but has a gift for car repair, and warns him not to get too attached to the car. Kenny, by the way, has just graduated from high school.

So it would seem that a certain area of L.A. in the 70s was essentially this huge outdoor singles bar, where people would cruise and interact while in their vehicles. Many hot rods slowly drive down the street, attracting the attention of pedestrian and folks in other cars. Bonaduce was selected [for some undetermined reason] to ambassador the new Corvette [souped-up to the Nth degree] through this twilight world, showing it off to everyone, but before he comes back, he needs to stop at the mini-mart and pick up some Cokes for the team. McGrath warns him ominously to be sure to take the keys, and when Bonaduce doesn’t hear, we can be sure we have just experienced some foreshadowing. It’s not long before we find out the car has been stolen.

Kenny is devastated. The police tell him the car is probably broken up and sold for parts by now, but Kenny refuses to believe it. One day a traveling salesman tells him he saw the car in Vegas, and Kenny immediately takes off. Hitching on the way, he is picked up by this crew of hot rods with this insinuating Latino driver. Kenny soon notices that the car is only going 15MPH, and begins to ask to be let out. He says “You don’t even have to stop the car.” This scene is just kind of pointless and funny and weird, and it sets up what is going to be the off-key and deadpan sense of humor this movie has. He is next picked up by a woman in a van. She is a small-time prostitute who is looking forward to taking her services to Vegas, where she can go “Full-time, baby!” She seems quite excited by this and delighted with her choice of profession, optimistic about the opportunity to practice it more. It’s good to have professional aspirations. She wants Kenny to be her first customer, but that is so not what he’s in town for. She says she’ll do it for $50, then goes down to $20 when he isn’t interested. She dumps him on the side of the road [now IN Vegas] when he continues to evade her, taking off in her van. Her name, by the way, is VANessa.

SPOILERS > > >
So Kenny takes to the casinos looking for his car, where he is targeted by various hustlers and has his wallet stolen, then is given a $2 bill by a guy who just won thousands of dollars. He’s about to leave the city for L.A. when he sees the Corvette drive down the street. Unable to pursue it further that night, he repairs to the UHaul lot, where he sleeps in a parked trailer. Who should just HAPPEN by theUHaul lot but Vanessa, makeup smeared all over her face by what we can only assume was eight hours [she did say she was going full-time] of hardcore prostitution. She gives a little look in the mirror that suggests perhaps the life of the full-time prostitute is less than she imagined.

She invites Kenny into the van, where he discovers she has a waterbed [which surely must drive down her mileage, no?]. She once more forces sex upon him, and I found it hilarious the way Hamill stays very still like a terrified rabbit, then bolts across the room the second she relaxes he grip. It’s not too long before she finally succeeds in seducing him, which is followed by another funny little touch. Suffice to say, he’s a convert.

The next day Kenny sees the car once more, and chases after it [looooong chase] on a bike. He follows it to an auto shop, and the mechanics there beat him and take him prisoner. That night he makes a noise suggesting he’s climbed out the window, but when the thug leaves we see that he has actually submerged himself in a barrel of oil. Hamill’s dazed walk as he tries to get out of the room, feet sliding on the oil, is quite funny. I’m beginning to think he’s a very gifted actor whose career was sidetracked by, you know, one of the most successful movies of all time. Once he finds her again, Vanessa takes him to a car wash and hoses him off.

The next day Mr. McGrath shows up! And Kenny is delighted to see him. It turns out that the guy who has the car was a former student of McGrath’s, and as he keeps talking about how he has fallen on hard times, it slowly begins to dawn on Kenny that it was McGrath himself who stole the car! Kenny is devastated anew, and McGrath tells him that Kenny’s mother has moved to Del Mar with some guy, and he essentially forces Kenny to come to work for him and the villains. The one villain who beat Kenny with the chain says “I’m sorry… you know… for the chain thing.” One of these guys is played by Brion James of Blade Runner and Southern Comfort. Anyway, Kenny demands more money and demands it now.

When we next see him he has outfitted himself in the finest duds of the late 70s. He takes Vanessa out and buys her some new clothes as well, then takes her to this Scarface-style “opulent” hotel room with a huge half-scallop bed. She assumes he’s doing all this as a ruse to steal his car back, but he tells her he’s over it—the car is “just a commodity to be bought and sold,” which is what McGrath was saying earlier. This makes her sad—because he’s given up on his dream, and also, although this is unstated, that if he can give up on his car, he can also give up on her. He makes matters worse by saying he has something to “cheer her up,” and offers her $20. He says he’ll be “a paying customer.” When this doesn’t do the trick, he offers her the original price, $50. She sadly says “this one’s on the house.”

The next morning a guy brings in Vanessa’s van to be painted over—she sold it. Kenny goes looking for her, and finds her at a casino, all decked out and now netting $100. She tells the guy she’s with that Kenny is her cousin, and he invites Kenny to join him—yes, he thinks Kenny’s her cousin—in the GANGBANG he has set up for later, even offering to “make it worth his while.” Can you believe what we just heard? I’m not sure I can.

Kenny mopes around some more, and the other mechanics leave him in the garage overnight. Yes, the criminals leave this guy they have just met and who was their sworn enemy until the day before alone in the garage with their priceless cars. Okay. Kenny spends the night painting his Corvette red again. When the thugs show up in the morning—why did he wait? Was he locked in?—Kenny beats them up and takes off with the car.

He finds Vanessa in the middle of making a porn movie, camera trained directly at her crotch. He punches out the dude from before and tells Vanessa “You are checking OUT.” He carries her out of the elevator, forces her screaming into his car, and takes off.

The other bad guy is also after them, which leads to a long [LONG] desert chase. It finally ends in a game of chicken that leaves the bad guy’s car destroyed, although we clearly see that he is unscathed.

Kenny then returns to his high school and pulls the fire alarm, so everyone will come out and see it. McGrath is all shocked and personally devastated when Kenny gives him the icy shoulder. Vanessa is now hanging on campus as though she’s a student there, and remains cold to Kenny while he does his thing, which is charmingly nag at her until she gives in. She finally does, and they walk off arm in arm while we hear a reprise of “Give Me the Night.”
< < < SPOILERS END

It was much better than it had any right to be. It has such a smart, deadpan sense of humor that works beautifully with the triviality of the material. Instead of the typical Porky’s-style tone of how kooky Kenny is and the wild adventure he has, it takes a cool tone of what an obsessed redneck loon Kenny is, and focuses on the comically horrible circumstances he finds himself in. This works perfectly with Hamill’s performance, really coming off at times like an absolute dumbfuck hick, whose charm can be how very immature and obsessed he is. It was very charming to end the film with him wheedling Vanessa until she gives in, rather than apologizing or pledging his love or anything dreary like that. By the end of this movie I was definitely regretting that we didn’t have a whole career’s-worth of varied Mark Hamill performances.

The whole thing is also better-written than it has any right to be. It carefully lays out little elements that will bloom into satisfying moral dilemmas and very subtly handles the convincing romance and feeling that develops between Kenny and Vanessa. This seems to be written by a smart person who looked at the teen movie genre and was able to write a screenplay that had some meat on it bones, rather than just a straightforward collection of hot cars and awesome chases.

So there ya go—a surprisingly satisfying watch. If you’re in the mood for a clever teen movie with a sophisticaedly deadpan sense of humor, and also want to see what more this Mark Hamill fellow might have amounted to, I say definitely check it out.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s much more satisfying than one might expect.