Thursday 8 September 2022

Movie Review: Big Wednesday (1978)

A story of friendship among a group of surfers, Big Wednesday carries natural appeal to surfing fans, but is less successful in capturing coming-of-age dynamics.

Starting in the early 1960s, the lives of three California surfer friends intertwine. Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the most talented, but drinks heavily. Leroy "The Masochist" Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild one, while Jack Barlow (William Katt) is the steadiest. Life consists of surfing, partying, and trips to Mexico, and all the surfers in this community look up to Bear (Sam Melville), a surfboard designer and permanent fixture on the pier. 

Jack finds a girlfriend in Sally (Patti D'Arbanville), while Matt's girlfriend Peggy (Lee Purcell) announces an unexpected pregnancy. As the years pass Matt and Peggy stay together and raise their daughter, but he struggles with his drinking and fading legacy. The guys try to finagle a way to avoid the military draft by faking various physical and mental conditions, except for Jack, who willingly signs up and serves in Vietnam. The lives of the friends drift apart, but just as Bear predicted, an epic day of huge waves in the early 1970s has the potential to bring them back together.

If Big Wednesday was as profound as it wanted to be, it may have been excellent. Unfortunately, the film's opening 30 minutes reduces male friendship to brawling together, limiting the depth of meaningful brotherhood. The first act reveals director and co-writer John Milius' love of surfing (the film is semi-autobiographical), but stumbles on a foodfight and two back-to-back fistfights, one on each side of the US/Mexico border. Little beyond the obvious is ever revealed about Matt, Leroy, and Jack, the dialogue is often obscured by the sound of roaring waves or speeding traffic, and an unidentified narrator drowns in platitudinal waves.

The second and third acts are better but still disjointed. The draft-dodging sequence showcases ingenuity and is funny, but seems to drop in from another movie. Once the trio is separated, Milius starts to find some eloquent tones. Nostalgia and a pining for the old days kick-in, and an effective Jan-Michael Vincent takes over at the heart of the story. The finale is epic in both emotion and wave size, cinematographer Bruce Surtees along with a special water unit and stunt doubles capturing magnificent surfing action.

Bear experiences his own dryland success and failure, and provides good mystical glue connecting the past, present, and future through omnipresence, prophetic prose, and the one-of-a-kind board for the day-that-shall-come. Big Wednesday rides the waves, and finds as many bombs as wipeouts.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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