Fandango (1985) is a celebration of being young. It’s a coming-of-age film that takes place during that nebulous time between graduating from college and when you are about enter the workforce and finally became an adult, supposedly leaving childish things behind. The film is much more than freewheeling road movie; it is also has its poignant moments as various characters face an uncertain future. Fandango marked the directorial debut of Texas filmmaker Kevin Reynolds and was also the first time he collaborated with actor Kevin Costner, a relationship that would continue over the years on other projects.
We meet the main characters, known collectively as the Groovers, in an Animal House-ish fraternity house in Austin, Texas, 1971. Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner) and his buddies are graduating. One of their own, Kenneth Waggener (Sam Robards) is supposed to get married but he just found out that he’s been drafted into the army and will eventually be sent to Vietnam. In an attempt to prolong the inevitable, Gardner decides that the Groovers are going to go on one last road trip. Along for the ride is Phil Hicks (Judd Nelson), a square, perpetual stick-in-the-mud whose car they use, Dorman (Chuck Bush), large fellow who studied to become a minister, Lester Griffin (Brian Cesak), who ends up sleeping through the entire journey, and, of course, Waggener.
The opening title card for Fandango defines the film’s title, one of which describes it as “a foolish act” – an apt description for most of the first half of the film. Reynolds captures the Groovers’ ecstatic, joyous journey in a montage of the guys drinking, laughing, driving fast along the highway, and generally goofing off – all to the strains of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” by Elton John blasting away on the soundtrack. This eventually gives way to the sobering reality of Phil throwing up on the side of the road and an overheated Waggener dunking his head in a cooler of water. Phil is the group’s nagging moral conscience and reminds them that they have to report to boot camp in a few days. Gardner convinces him to extend their road trip a little longer so that they can go dig up Dom, a vintage bottle of champagne that they buried on the border of Texas and Mexico.
Fandango contains plenty of “foolish acts,” like when the boys are out of gas and they tie fence post cable to the bumper of the car. Then, Dorman lassos a passing train to hitch a ride. It doesn’t work, of course, and the front part of the car gets ripped off. This is only the first of several bits of damage that is inflicted on Phil’s car, much to his chagrin. They push the car to a gas station (the attendant is played by none other than Pepe Serna of Scarface and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai fame) and find themselves in the town where Giant (1956) was shot. Later that night, they actually camp out at the site where the famous house from the film stood but all that remains is a pathetic, skeletal frame.
While they wait for the car to get fixed, the Groovers hang out at a Sonic drive-in diner, mooching food off of unsuspecting people. This gets them noticed by two teenage girls (one of whom is played by Elizabeth Daily from Valley Girl and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure fame) whom they charm for some food and a good time, all to the strains of “Spooky” by The Classics IV, which evokes those fun Saturday nights where all you do is goof off with your friends. The girls invite the guys to shoot off fireworks in a graveyard and everyone has loads of fun aiming them at each other. But this harmless lark gives way to a sobering dose of reality as Gardner and Waggener stumble across the grave of a young man who died over in Vietnam. They look back at the fireworks-induced chaos and it now looks a lot like a warzone, a smoky landscape complete with the image of a mini-mushroom cloud. Is this to be an ominous foreshadowing of what these guys are in for if report to boot camp and are sent to Vietnam?
Not surprisingly, Kevin Costner plays Gardner as a cocky ladies man. As he tells Waggener at one point, “I’ve never been serious about a woman in my life,” but through several flashbacks we know this not to be true. One of them reveals Gardner frolicking with an ex-girlfriend (Suzy Amis) to the strains of that wonderful Carole King song, “It’s Too Late.” I can take or leave Costner as an actor (although, I thought he was great in Bull Durham and A Perfect World) but he’s really good in Fandango. He plays Gardner with a mischievous glint in his eye and has the natural charisma to be the leader of the Groovers. His character isn’t just about having fun as he occasionally flashes back to the girl he once loved but that he let get away, as a dream sequence literally visualizes. Among the group, Gardner has the strongest sense of tradition. He is the driving force behind their quest to dig up Dom. He’s a restless spirit and has a hunger for the open road a la Jack Kerouac. Costner nails this free-spirited vibe so well.
Phil is a complainer and a constant wet blanket who is missing the point of the trip. As Gardner says at one point, “There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere. It’s a right of youth.” Phil just hurls insults at Gardner until Waggener has finally had enough and explodes, telling Phil exactly what he thinks of him. I’ve never been a huge Judd Nelson fan but he is excellent as an initially unlikable character, a “weenie” as Gardner calls him. Partway through the film, Gardner proposes that Phil take a sky diving lesson in order to prove that he’s not a weenie. This sequence was the short film that was the basis for Fandango. After Phil survives his lesson he is much more tolerable and loosens up considerably. Sam Robards is also quite good as Waggener and he, Nelson and Costner would all go on to bigger things, having worked steadily ever since this film.
The camaraderie among the Groovers is believable and fun to watch, especially the scene where they gleefully mess with Phil as he learns the basics of skydiving from Truman Sparks (Marvin J. McIntyre), a burn-out instructor-cum-hippie who looks like he’s done a little too much acid in the 1960s and never really recovered. The skydiving sequence in Fandango is shot-for-shot taken from Reynold’s University of Southern California thesis film “Proof” from 1980. He originally did a stint at Baylor Law School but was unhappy with the prospect of becoming a lawyer and wanted to go back to film school. He practiced law in the daytime and went to film school at night. After a year of doing this he realized that he had to make a choice.
Reynolds applied to USC film school, got accepted and quit his job. His goal was to have a screenplay that he could sell and a film he could show. He ended up selling his first script and got an agent because of it. He finished “Proof” and shortly afterward, Steven Spielberg’s people contacted him. He met with the famous filmmaker who liked “Proof” and two days later got a call from his assistant. Reynolds was told that Spielberg was making arrangements for him to do a feature film version of “Proof.” Once Reynolds got the OK he had to write a script around the action sequence in his short film. Costner had originally auditioned for “Proof” but didn’t get the part. He came back when Reynolds was casting for Fandango and within the first lines during the reading; he knew that Costner “was the guy.”
Fandango culminates with a wedding in a small, sleepy border town which sees Gardner and Phil perpetuating a pretty clever scam by managing to enlist the entire town to help out for free. This leads into the ceremony itself which reveals who Waggener’s bride-to-be is – the girl that Gardner has been thinking about it in the film’s flashbacks. The wedding ceremony is scored to Pat Methany and Lyle Mays’ “It’s For You,” creating a wistful mood that has a slight bittersweet tinge to it because of Gardner’s relationship to the bride. Then, the soundtrack swells with emotion when she and Costner dance the fandango, which takes us back to one of the definitions at the film’s opening title card. And who would’ve thought Costner could dance but he cuts an impressive rug that is shot in such a way that you know it’s really him doing it. This entire sequence is beautifully lit with strings of lights decorating the gazebo where Waggener and his bride are married. The final farewell of the Groovers is a melancholic one as Gardner takes off and Phil is left alone with Dorman telling him to “have a nice life.” The final shot is of Gardner watching from the outskirts of town as the lights go out and he raises a bottle for one last toast.
Reynolds is a native Texan and Fandango is a love letter, of sorts, to the state. At one point, Phil criticizes Texas and Gardner replies almost reverentially, “It’s wild, Philip. Always has been. Always will be.” As if to reinforce this point, Waggener laments calling off his wedding after coming across a plaque recognizing the McLean Massacre, a place where two Indian fighters were ambushed and killed in 1837. The film has all the energy and vitality of a first-time director who’s willing to go for it and has a burning desire to tell a story. However, the film’s joyful celebration of youth is tempered by a melancholic tone that surfaces periodically as the Groovers realize that their carefree college days are over and the sobering reality of army boot camp and Vietnam hangs over their heads like a dark storm cloud. As Reynolds said in a recent interview, Fandango is “the end of era for these four, and some realized it more than others.” He would graduate to bigger, more ambitious studio films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Waterworld (1995), but none of his subsequent work has had the personal touch of Fandango. It’s as if Reynolds lost track of where he came from and had his personality, which is apparent in every frame of his debut feature, removed by the impersonal machinations of Hollywood.