Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Some movies are wonderful. Others are terrible. And then there are those that fall under the category of “fascinating artifacts” – films whose value is primarily historical or cultural. Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar is pretty much that, but what a specimen. Sometimes it’s a corny 70’s movie with groan-inducing stereotypes: the hard-ass, overbearing Irish dad, the Black single welfare mother from the ghetto, the emotionally unstable, closeted gay man. Their dialogue can be cringe-worthy, their characterizations one-dimensional and dated.

Sometimes, however, Goodbar is a real naturalistic gem, thanks almost entirely to Diane Keaton’s performance. Like her role in Annie Hall (released that same year,) Keaton is perfect as an unassuming, down-to-Earth, and enormously charming but repressed Irish Catholic college student who has an affair with her professor before discovering the vibrant dating scene of the disco era, and all the sexcapades that come with it. The sex scenes will feel a bit tame in a 21st Century where the most disgusting porn you can’t imagine is just a web search away, but for 1977, it’s pretty explicit stuff. More importantly, they’re organic and fresh, very different from the glossy, gratuitous version of sex injected into most Hollywood films.

Sometimes, Goodbar is sweet: Keaton’s day job as a special needs teacher for deaf students feels like an entirely different film, and Brooks does a great job depicting Keaton’s empathetic approach to her students’ issues. But the story seems to include this aspect of her persona only as fodder for its morality tale: there goes Theresa Dunn (Keaton) – she was a sweet girl, could have been a great teacher, but she fell for a life of loose sex and cocaine, and now look at her: a mess. Tsk tsk tsk.

What makes this film such an oddball artifact is that it only seems to push this paternalistic attitude half the time. The other half, it feels like a genuine product of the swingin’ seventies, one that is all about women’s lib and the sexual revolution. Are we embracing it or criticizing it? It’s really hard to tell. The ending is genuinely shocking and kicks your gut out of left field- but once that’s over, you’re left with a giant question mark. What’s this movie trying to say, exactly?

Whatever you decide, it’s quite a trip. Keaton’s crazy path brings her in the presence of Richard Gere, Tom Berenger and LeVar Burton; Tuesday Weld also makes an appearance as her flighty older sister (which got her an Oscar nomination) which serves as a foil for our misguided protagonist. Probably doomed to never coming out on streaming because of the expensive disco-era soundtrack it contains, Looking for Mr. Goodbar will always be, at least, a fascinating artifact of the hangover the Boomer Generation woke up with once they realized their 60’s party was over.

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