This weekend, January 24th to 26th, in 1985 Kevin Costner took his first leading man role in the mostly forgotten road comedy “Fandango.” Co-starring Sam Robards, Chuck Bush and Judd Nelson, “Fandango” follows four friends from the University of Texas on one, final, epic road trip before each heads off to Vietnam or maybe Mexico.
The year is 1971 and the day before Kenneth’s (Sam Robards) wedding, his graduation day from the University of Texas, he finds out he’s been drafted. So has his best friend Gardner (Costner) while their roommate Hicks (Nelson) has already volunteered to go. With their future’s uncertain the friends pile into a generic movie road trip car and head for the border with plans to dig up a relic of their earlier college years.
That’s the set up of “Fandango” but the film is more than just a road movie. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, Costner’s go-to director before their “Waterworld” falling out, “Fandango” is yet another 80’s movie still attempting to process the feelings inspired by the war in Vietnam. Set in 1971, in the midst of the worst of the war, we watch characters who’ve skirted the war effort as privileged college students now facing down the real possibility of death.
For all of the shiny, neon, plastic, phoniness of the 1980’s there were moments of true depth and sadness and much of it had to do with the lingering specter of Vietnam. In the 80’s Hollywood was finally ready to examine the tragedy of Vietnam and perform the post-mortem examination with some of the great war movies of all time in “Platoon” and “”Full Metal Jacket.” And then there were smaller reckonings like “Fandango” which masked the angsty, life and death fears of Vietnam with a humor that barely concealed terror.
This comic angst is never more present in “Fandango” than in a brief scene set in a cemetery on one of the road trip’s many detours. Having run out of gas in a small town our heroes happen upon a pair of teenage girls who buy them dinner and take them around town. They wind up in a cemetery playing with fireworks which come to resemble the bombs dropping over Vietnam once Kenneth stumbles over a grave marked for an Army Corporal who died just that year in Vietnam.
The scene is a tad heavy-handed but Robards and Costner sell the moment with the fear on their faces while director Reynolds gives the moment time to breath. The fireworks lighting up the graves and the grave faces of Robards and Costner give the scene a strong visual quality even, as I mentioned early, as the scene is more than a little over-wrought with subtext.
For some reason I tried to be put off by “Fandango.” I fought the film’s charm early on because I was expecting a cheesy teen appeal road comedy. By the end of the film I was deeply charmed by the characters and the humor and camaraderie they use to fend off the feeling of impending doom engendered by their future trip to Vietnam. Costner is especially effective near the end of the movie when his memories of a lost love collide with his duty to his best friend and their terrifyingly uncertain future.
The movie ends with an only in the movies style impromptu wedding. Having convinced the residents of a small Texas border-town to help them honor Kenneth’s wish for a last second wedding to ‘The Girl,’ played by Suzy Amis, we watch a truly charming scene of homemade food and craft burst to life in the middle of the dusty town. The scene should not work but it does because everyone involved is so committed to it.
In the end, the combination of a charming cast and serious Vietnam related angst combine to make a surprisingly satisfying dramatic comedy. Is it surprising that “Fandango” isn’t well remembered 30 years later? No, it is by nature a road comedy, a sub-genre that has never been known for having a shelf life. However, I am quite pleasantly surprised to find myself a fan of “Fandango.”