Lets Roll

Coppola on the Rain People setVinny (Robert Modica) is a decent Long Island schlub who is stunned when his wife, Natalie (Shirley Knight), abruptly leaves him. She eventually calls him to announce she's gone on the road to find herself, and, oh, yeah, she's pregnant and considering aborting their child.

Given that setup, you'd expect The Rain People would be Vinny's story. We'd watch the poor guy mope around the house, worried sick about his nutty wife and the fate of their unborn child. Eventually he'd rebuild his life from the broken shards Natalie left behind; maybe he'd meet a nice girl, and he'd learn to love again. Then, when Natalie would inevitably come stumbling home a few months later, stinking of cigarettes and booze and dirty truck-stop love, her belly the size of the Hindenburg and her purse overflowing with prescription medicines and crusty Kleenexes, Vinny would finally realize that when she split town, she did him the biggest favor of his life.

But this isn't Vinny's story. It's Natalie's, and this maddening, moody little loser's odyssey is a good deal more interesting than her plodding, stolid husband's would be. While Vinny's back at the ranch licking his wounds, Natalie is meeting weirdoes, making bad choices and actually living her life.

One weirdo Natalie meets is Jimmie "Killer" Kilgannon (James Caan), a shambling manchild without any apparent prospects for survival. Years of playing football have scrambled his brains, and he has just been booted out of college with a small wad of cash and little capacity for abstract thought. Natalie takes pity on him and tries to help him put his life in order, a prospect that can only fill us with dread. This isn't the blind leading the blind; it's more like the deaf, dumb and blind leading the deaf, dumb and blinder. The pair travels across the Midwest, but things get complicated (well, more complicated) when Natalie takes up with an intense, widowed cop (Robert Duvall) who has a big, shiny forehead full of demons. Is Natalie getting herself into another huge mess? Do you even have to ask?

The Rain People is a fascinating footnote in Francis Ford Coppola's filmography. Released in 1969, after he'd spent nearly a decade trying to launch his directing career with one weird bomb after another (the most notable being Finian's Rainbow in 1968), The Rain People didn't bring in much of an audience, but it made an impression on the few who saw it. Coppola was in thrall to the French New Wave at the time, and this film is as arty, confusing, pretentious and bleak as the best New Wave pictures, while Natalie, for all her flaws, remains an unforgettable screen heroine.

Nowadays, many influential, conservative loudmouths (like, say, the president) are increasingly attempting to affix the blame for our nation's sorry state on the antics of people like Natalie. "For too long," Bush opined recently in his second State of the Union address, "our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll.'" Of course, George W. himself spent a couple of decades as the biggest party boy since Caligula, but that's beside the point.

If one is tempted to look uncharitably on those baby boomers who shucked off their constrictive existences, sometimes abandoning families, jobs and sanity itself in the process, one need only look to people like George W. to realize how much better off the world would be if he and most of his generation had stayed turned on, tuned in and dropped out. We need more Natalies running around, clumsily following their bliss, rather than a nation of Vinnys joylessly facing up to their responsibilities.

The Rain People screens at the UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & W. Peltason drives, Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $3-$5.


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