Picks and Pans Review: Tucker

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Francis Coppola's new movie, the first goodie he has directed since Apocalypse Now in 1979, begins with a short promo film for inventor-family man Preston Tucker, played by Jeff Bridges. Tucker is being sold as the embodiment of the American dream. No ironic slurs intended. Coppola's movie, with a screenplay by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, sells him that way too. Tucker is the little guy, circa 1940s, who devises a car of the future only to see his innovations in safety, style and engineering snuffed out by greedy big business. Already the press has been hyping the similarities between Tucker and Coppola, whose experimental films beginning with the 1982 flop One from the Heart brought his studio to financial ruin. "I always thought of Tucker as being Francis," said his pal and Tucker executive producer George Lucas. It's a nice publicity gimmick. But Coppola's movie would be no more than a smarmy valentine to himself if it stopped at the ain't-it-vexing-being-a-visionary level. The reason Tucker emerges as a striking, stirring film achievement is the way Coppola celebrates the creative process. He doesn't yammer about it; he puts it right out there. Bridges, in the most vigorous performance of his career, portrays a man possessed by ideas. He toils tirelessly with co-workers, wrangles with corporate honchos and takes on a hostile Senator, sharply done by Jeff's dad, Lloyd Bridges. Even though the Securities and Exchange Commission levels fraud charges (of which he was later acquitted) that KO his company, Tucker sees 50 of his creations roll off the assembly line. Camera whiz Vittorio (The Last Emperor) Storaro gives the film a snazzy new-car gleam that dazzles and delights. Strangely, Coppola never digs beneath the surface of Tucker's personality. The family drama plays like Father Knows Best blather and wastes the talents of Joan Allen in the one-note role of Tucker's dutiful wife. There is more emotional heat in Bridges' scenes with Martin (Mission: Impossible) Landau as Tucker's Jewish partner with a dodgy past. Landau, tartly amusing and affecting, is definite Oscar bait. What makes this unapologetically up movie work is Coppola's infectious idea-mongering. You can feel his elation at hawking dreams. (Tucker was still cooking up car concepts when he died at 53.) No matter if Tucker the man sold only 50 cars or if Tucker the movie sells only 50 tickets. Coppola, like his maverick mentor, has made a thing of beauty. (PG)

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