Parallel Lives (1994, directed by Linda Yellen)

A large group of people gather together one weekend for a fraternity/sorority reunion.  Since college, some of them have become rich and powerful.  Some of them are now famous.  Some of them are now seedy and disreputable.  They all have college memories, though there’s such a wide variety of age groups represented that it’s hard to believe that any of them actually went to college together.  After the men spend the day playing practical jokes and touch football and the women spend the night talking about their hopes and dreams, they wake up the next morning to discover the someone has murdered Treat Williams.  A pony-tailed sheriff (Robert Wagner) shows up to question everyone.

Parallel Lives was made for Showtime with the help of the Sundance Institute.  Today, it’s a forgotten film but, for some reason, it was very popular with American Airlines during the summer of 1997.  That summer, when I flew to the UK, Parallel Lives was one of the movies that we were shown.  (It was the second feature.  The first feature was Down Periscope, a submarine comedy starring Kelsey Grammar.  Fourteen year-old me enjoyed Down Periscope but, in retrospect, it wasn’t much of a flight.)  A month and a half later, when I flew back to the U.S., Parallel Lives was again one of the films shown on the flight!  For that reason, I may be the only person on the planet who has not forgotten that a film called Parallel Lives exists.

Parallel Lives, I later learned, was an entirely improvised film.  The huge cast were all given their characters and a brief outline of the film’s story and they were then allowed to come up with their own dialogue.  Unfortunately, no one did a very good job of it and the men were reduced to bro-ing it up while the women spent most of the movie having extended group therapy.  The story doesn’t add up too much and, even when I rewatched it from an adult’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of everyone talking about how different the real world was from college.  Technically, the film’s a murder mystery but you can’t improvise a successful murder mystery.  This film proves that point.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there are 26 characters, all trying to get a word in at the same time.  Some of the roles don’t make much sense.  Dudley Moore shows up, playing an imaginary friend.  (How do you improvise being a figment of someone’s imagination?)  James Brolin introduces himself to everyone as being, “Professor Doctor Spencer Jones” and that appears to be as far as he got with his improv.  Ben Gazzara is a gambler and Mira Sorvino is the prostitute that he brings to the reunion while Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, moons the camera several times.  Jack Klugman is a senator with Alzheimer’s and Patricia Wettig is his daughter.  The majority of the movie centers around Jim Belushi, playing a reporter and falling in love with JoBeth Williams.  Liza Minnelli, Helen Slater, Levar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Matthew Perry, Ally Sheedy, and Gena Rowlands all have small roles.  How did so many talented people come together to make such a forgettable movie and why did American Airlines decide it was the movie to show people on their way to another country?  That’s the true mystery of Parallel Lives.

Back to School #53: Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 (dir by Tim McCanlies)


Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is a 1998 film about a small town in West Texas that only has a population of 81 citizens.  Just from my own experience of telling people about how much I happen to like this movie, I get the feeling that only 81 people may have actually seen it.  But no matter!  Regardless of how many people have actually seen it, Dancer, Texas is one of my favorite films about my home state.

Dancer starts out with a scene that is so quintessentially Texan that it might as well appear next to Texas in the dictionary.  Four teenagers — all of whom are scheduled to soon graduate from high school — sit out in the middle of the highway.  The road seems to stretch on forever.  The land around them is empty.  If you’ve ever been to West Texas, you know what type of land I’m talking about.  It’s the type of land where you feel like you can see forever.  In the far distance, we see a pair of headlights.

“Car’s comin'” one of them drawls, knowing that they’ve got at least another 15 minutes before that car ever gets anywhere near the tiny town of Dancer, Texas.

These four teenage boys make up 80% of the graduating class of Dancer’s high school and all four of them are planning on leaving town and heading for Los Angeles.  Keller (Breckin Meyer) is their leader, the big dreamer who can’t wait to get out of the state.  Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli) is the son of the only rich man in town and he’s being pressured by his mother to stay in Dancer and to learn the oil business.  John (Eddie Mills) is the simplest of the four and also the most reluctant about leaving.  He simply wants to be a farmer and he can’t understand why his taciturn father refuses to say anything to keep him from leaving town.  And finally, there’s Squirrel (Ethan Embry), who is the weird one.  Every group needs a weird one and Squirrel is weird even by the usual standards of small town oddness.

Not much happens in Dancer, Texas.  That goes for both the film and the town.  Over the course of two days, all four of the boys are forced to decide whether they really want to leave or if they actually want to stay.  Adding an extra poignancy to their decision is the fact that there literally is no chance that life in Dancer is ever going to change.  Dancer is as it has always been and always will be.  Deciding to stay means staying forever.  And, as the film shows, that’s okay for some people and terrible for others.

I really like Dancer, Texas.  Yes, it does move at its own deliberate pace and yes, a few scenes do tend to get a bit too obvious in their sentimentality (just to name two of the complaints that I saw from some commenters over at the imdb).  Meyer, Facinelli, and Mills all give such wonderfully natural performances that it makes you all the more aware that Embry seems a bit out-of-place.  But, ultimately, none of that matters.  Dancer, Texas is one of the most honest and sincere films that I’ve ever seen and it’s a film that does my home state proud.

Lisa’s Rating: 8 out of 10