July 31, 1989 12:00 PM

Barry Tubb, Frederic Forrest

How much you enjoy this film will depend on how thin you like your slices of life. This one is thin to the point of transparency, though it has moments of on-the-money observation and a few laughs.

It’s a coming-of-age tale in which Tubb (Hill Street Blues, Top Gun) plays a naive young ’50s farm worker in the area around Stockton, Calif. As the story begins, Tubb is addressing his goal in life, which is to buy a pink 1958 Cadillac (this is obviously a big year for cinematic pink Cadillacs). Once he acquires the car, it becomes the vehicle in which he cruises around looking for suggestible young women and the vehicle through which director Peter Hoffman and screenwriter Leonard Gardner convey their ideas about how hard it is to grow up.

Most of Tubb’s problems involve his parents, Forrest and Veronica (Witches of Eastwick) Cartwright, who break up and reconcile with monotonous regularity. At one point Cartwright splits, leaving a note for Tubb: “Why don’t you get some Chinese food for dinner? I’ve left your father. Love, Mom.” (A crucial shortcoming of the film is that while Forrest is supposed to be an irresistible cad, he is all too resistible.)

Tubb must confront not only the example of his father’s stubbornly irresponsible behavior, but a querulous cast of stereotypes left over from a James Dean film festival: the sex-craving, God-fearing girlfriend (Jenny Wright), a looney-tunes sadistic biker (Miguel Ferrer—yes, Jose’s son), various delinquent ruffians in bars and parents who seem to have taken courses in misunderstanding offspring.

For Valentino Returns, Gardner adapted his own short story, “Christ Has Returned to Earth and Preaches Here Nightly,” much as he adapted his own story for the 1972 John Huston film about third-rate boxers in a California town, Fat City. That minor classic had a dramatic focus, though, and it also had Huston directing as well as Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in its lead roles. This movie has a routine story punctuated by long stretches of aimless plot. The ending is uneventful, yet its impact seems intended to be LARGER THAN EVENTS. You leave this movie feeling mostly that someone has held up a small sign saying ALLEGORY IN PROGRESS and smacked you over the head with it a few times, not hard enough to do damage but hard enough to be vaguely annoying. (R)

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