January 14, 1985 12:00 PM

Although this comedy is director Garry (Young Doctors in Love) Marshall’s second theatrical film after a long TV sitcom career, it has the heartfelt emotion of a first novel. Like those writers who mine their own passages to manhood for material, Marshall has turned to the place and approximate time of his own adolescence, the ’60s, for a frequently delightful movie. Marshall’s remembrance of things past is like a Philip Roth story as Sid Caesar might have rewritten it. Set in Brooklyn in 1963, it chronicles the summer in which unsophisticated Matt Dillon gets an adult education as a cabana boy at the ritzy El Flamingo, a Queens beach club. There he encounters a world of glamorous types, including the club’s ace card player, Richard Crenna, who becomes Dillon’s mentor and surrogate father. Using ’60s songs and cha-cha lessons, among other things, Marshall has shrewdly streaked the movie with period details that anchor the plot and illuminate the characters—an idiosyncratic bunch who are as interesting to us as they are to his naive hero. As Crenna’s bored wife, Jessica Walter alchemizes a small part into a fascinating personality. Dillon does a clever comical riff on his usual brooding outsider. Ironically, by playing down his standard defiance and playing up his vulnerability, Dillon may have finally given the performance that will make him the star that he’s threatened to become. Marshall sustains the sweetness of his movie, if not its surprises. The script he co-authored with Neal Marshall (no relation) advertises its plot developments before they occur, and the resolution skids into Laverne and Shirley pseudo sentiment. But the movie is ingratiating even when it’s clunky. Watching The Flamingo Kid is like looking at a nostalgic home movie with an oldies album on the stereo. (PG-13)

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