Recently, despite my longstanding fear of heights and my refusal to ever ride one in real life, I watched a film called Rollercoaster. First released in 1977, Rollercoaster recently made its debut on TCM. I was hesitant about watching it but then Robert Osborne assured me that it was an entertaining film and, seriously, who can say no to Robert Osborne?
An unnamed bomber (Timothy Bottoms) is going from amusement park to amusement park and blowing up roller coasters. He wants money and, even more importantly, he wants the money to be delivered to him by safety inspector Harry Caulder (George Segal). Will the FBI back off long enough for Harry to deal with the bomber? Will the bomber ever smile? Finally, will Harry be able to save the day while, at the same time, trying to quit smoking and bond with his daughter?
Roller Coaster is about 30 minutes too long and it’s never quite as exciting as it should be. My mind kept wandering during the climax, which is not a good thing when the film is supposed to be a race against time. However, at the same time, when taken on its own dated terms, Roller Coaster is a lot of fun. Even if director James Goldstone (who also directed the far more surreal Brother John) struggles a bit with keeping the action moving at a steady pace, he still directs with a good eye for detail and gets good performances out of the majority of the film’s cast.
Since I best know George Segal for playing cantankerous father figures on about a thousand different sitcoms, it took me a few minutes to get used to the idea that he was the main character here. While Segal does have several funny lines in Rollercoaster, he is also totally convincing and likable as the film’s hero. Timothy Bottoms is equally convincing as the unnamed bomber. The fact that we learn little about the bomber’s motivations or background just serve to make Bottoms’s cold performance all the more chilling.
As for the supporting cast, Henry Fonda is the biggest distraction, snarling his way through his role as Segal’s jerk of a boss. Oddly enough, Fonda showed up in a lot of disaster films in the 70s, usually playing authority figures and usually only appearing in two or three scenes. Whenever Henry Fonda shows up in a film like this, overacting and looking somewhat humiliated, it’s best just to close your eyes and think of 12 Angry Men and then realize that even great actors sometimes just needed a paycheck. Richard Widmark is far more convincing, playing the stuffy FBI agent who doesn’t have much use for George Segal. Finally, for those of you who enjoy spotting future Oscar nominees in unlikely roles, 13 year-old Helen Hunt makes her film debut here as Segal’s daughter, who just wants to ride the rollercoaster one time.
Ultimately, the best recommendation that I can give to Rollercoaster is to say that it’s a quintessentially 70s films and hence, it’s a piece of history. Not only is the film full of 70s fashion, 70s hair, and 70s stereotypes (just check out the long-haired teenagers joking about getting high while unknowingly sitting on top of a bomb) but the film also features a performance from a band called Sparks that is so 70s that the cast of Dazed and Confused might as well have been watching them in the audience and going, “Alright, alright, alright…”
(I have to admit that I had never heard of Sparks before I saw this film. I looked them up on Wikipedia and I discovered that not only is the band still performing but that the lead singer claims that appearing in Rollercoaster was the band’s biggest regret. Personally, I think he’s being too hard on both the band and the film. Sure, they seem painfully out-of-place but I dare anyone to get the borderline annoying sound of “Big Boy” out of their head.)
For those of us who were born a few decades too late to experience it firsthand, Rollercoaster is our chance to spend two hours living in the 70s.