Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Kick the Can

"Kick the Can" was the episode of The Twilight Zone Steven Spielberg picked to remake for the 1983 feature-length anthology movie, and to put it bluntly, Spielberg's version might very well be the worst thing he ever directed. For a filmmaker who rarely steps wrong, Spielberg's take was gooey, schmaltzy, and all the things people say when they want to knock Spielberg as a director. The original episode, written by George Clayton Johnson and directed by Lamont Johnson, isn't that bad, but it feels padded, a nice, whimsical idea they struggled to stretch out to 25 minutes. 

For a while, "Kick the Can" resembles the old-timer version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The elderly residents of Sunnyvale Rest are lonely, feeble, miserable, and they don't have much freedom or control of their lives. One day, after finding out his son won't take him home, Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex) hits on an idea while watching the local kids play kick the can: maybe there's magic in the games of youth.

I guess you could say it's not how old you are; it's how old you feel. The residents Sunnyvale Rest sit around and mope about how old and weak they are, so of course, they're only going to feel old and weak. Charles, watching all those kids play kick the can and hide-and-go-seek, realizes that you can't feel better unless you act better. Somewhere in life, in that inevitably transition between childhood and adulthood, the "fragile magic of youth" is lost and forgotten.

Charles comes to believe it's because the games and fun stop. "All kids play those games, and the minute they stop, they grow old." So, he rallies the residents to start acting like kids again, much to the dismay of his lifelong friend Ben Conroy (Russell Collins), who nags him to act his age, and Superintendent Cox (John "I found my horse's head in my bed" Marley), who wants to keep things calm and orderly. It all leads to one night where Charles leads the others outside after dark for a game to see if they can recapture the magic.

Maybe if I wasn't already so familiar with the story, I could appreciate "Kick the Can" more, but the moment I was waiting for, when the old timers turn back into little kids, occurs in the last handful of minutes of the episode. Before that, it's a lot of back and forth between Charles and Ben with Ben trying to talk sense to his friend, and it makes the episode drag more than it should in such a short running length. I just wanted the story to get on it with it.

Performances are good, especially Truex as the old man with a young soul and a twinkle in his eye. I also liked some of the images, particularly one of the old gang looking down over the railing in the stairwell; they resemble a group of mischievous schoolchildren. I also liked the tracking shot of Charles as he walks past the line of seated residents along the porch before he decides to run through the sprinkler. The image suggests wonderfully how just his getting up and being active physically is disrupting the static, lifeless order of the place. Overall, "Kick the Can" is slight but charming.

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