From the title alone you can tell this has flop written all over it. In 1981 this was the most expensive comedy ever made. They painted an entire town pink; they blew up a freeway overpass; they made an elephant water ski. But all was for naught. Hume Cronyn, Daniel Stern, and Beverly DeAngelo’s side boob could not save this huge ensemble road trip from being a thin shadow of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World with second-string actors.
John Schlesinger directed some of the best movies of the ’70s prior to slamming headfirst into guard rail of the ’80s with this colossal failure, which was originally 3 hours long. He directed Marathon Man, which made a diamond-hording Nazi dentist not only plausible but terrifying. The Day of the Locust, where we cheered Donald Sutherland (aptly named Homer Simpson) as he stomped a child to death. And Midnight Cowboy, where we learned that the Statue of Liberty was taking a leak in Central Park. But as Sam Peckinpah would go from classics such as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to indulge in a silly but fun trucker movie like Convoy, Schlesinger didn’t have a hit song to begin with.
Honky Tonk Freeway has a cavalcade of characters who all converge on the small Florida tourist trap of Ticlaw. The town is run by Mayor Kirby, played by the Kennedyesque character actor William DeVane. At a town meeting, he is sparring with a civil engineer who is telling the town that “extra piddly dunk town does not rate a freeway exit!” But later, he tells the Mayor that for ten grand, they can work someone out. But being a weaselly politician, he screws them over. So the town begins putting up illegal billboards to attract tourists 35 miles off course to see their town. The mayor runs a Safari Park with a drunken lion and an elephant named Bubbles that he keeps trying to get to water ski, but nothing is bringing the tourists in.
While the town of Ticlaw is working on its conundrum, we meet a dozen other colorful characters on their way to Florida: Two NY garbage men turn bank robbers, calling the bank teller “turkey tits” and demanding that she cash a poor woman’s unemployment check before taking off in their blue VW Beetle with the loot; Teri Garr and Howard Hesseman are a suburban couple in their new RV, with two annoying kids- Ralphie from A Christmas Story, younger here, doesn’t want to pee in the motor home and demands frequent stops. And his whiny sister (who’d later be the daughter in National Lampoon’s European Vacation) torments him, running the faucet. Beverly DeAngelo is a waitress taking her deceased mother’s ashes to Florida. She picks them up from a drive-thru mortuary. Beau Bridges is a Dad who wants to write children’s books about Licky the Carnivorous Horse, whose wife kicks him out. Hume Cronyn is a retired ad man with an cute-Hollywood-alcoholic wife, trying to enjoy retirement. Daniel Stern plays a drug-peddling hitchhiker. And there’s also a wanna-be country singer transporting a rhino to Ticlaw, and singing the theme song as he goes.
Oh, I forgot about the Jeep full of gay guys with the “Honk if you’re Horny!” bumper sticker. Sexy gal Bev first honks at them, only to see a bearded guy’s face rise from the driver’s lap. Oh, well! I guess you’re not horny for me! They use the same joke again when George Dzundza, one of the bumbling bank robbers, honks at them to his dismay. The humor varies from low-brow like this and downright corny. The black sheriff says that the Mayor is getting so crazy with his Safari park, that next “you’ll want me to carry a spear and put a bone through my nose.” Blazing Saddles this is not. At a seafood restaurant, the waitress asks “Who gets the crabs?” and the gay fellas are there to say “We all do sometime, sister!”
It has a mild anti-establishment vibe running throughout, from the expectations of government corruption and mindless bureaucracy, to druggie Daniel Stern offering everyone cocaine. He ends up snorting Beverly DeAngelo’s mom. When the town is at wit’s end, they blow up the freeway overpass and force all the traffic through their pink-painted podunk town, and have a swinging party. Everyone breaks out their big lapels and bell bottoms. Oh yeah, I forgot about the Hollywood model and her pimp boyfriend, and the two nuns! At the swinger’s party, one of the nuns finally converts to Hedonism and runs off with Mr. Hollywood. Everyone collides in huge freeway crash when the rhino breaks out of the truck and goes wild. But at least the Mayor finally gets the elephant to water ski, and Ralphie gets to take a pee.
Honky Tonk Freeway was an enormous flop and probably ended Schlesinger’s big movie career. It was a late ’70s movie made in the early ’80s, begging people to stop watching the boob tube and come out to the theaters, but by then we had Ataris and VHS and couldn’t care less about these Sunday afternoon family comedies. They were old and corny. They lingered on the ’70s malaise, and did not wow us with robot and sparkle-infested visions of The Future. Today they only serve as a nostalgic footnote in movie history best left unremembered.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? I think it was College Road Trip
Quotability Rating: nil
Cheese Factor: Limburger
High Points: a few nostalgic corny laughs
Low Point: George Dzundza sniffing panties in a store
Gratuitous Boobies: Bev’s brely glimpsed side boob