Goin’ South (1978)
“For Henry Moon, life was just beginning.”
Goin’ South (1978)
Director: Jack Nicholson
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd
Synopsis: A horse thief is saved from the gallows by a young woman who wants him to mine for gold on her land.
When you look at some of the names in the cast list of Jack Nicholson’s 1978 Western comedy Goin’ South, you have to wonder how the movie was ever completed. Nicholson was still a heavy drug user back in the late 1970s, and Ed Begley Jr has also admitted to being so deeply in the grip of a serious drug problem during filming that, on occasion, John Belushi and his wife would drive him around the desert to try and straighten him out. So you really have to wonder what kind of pitiful shape Begley must have been in for Belushi, an icon of the excessive ’70s drug culture who would himself succumb to an overdose, to feel compelled to step in. Lord only knows what the sweet movie novice Mary Steenburgen must have made of it all…
As inveterate horse thief Henry Moon, Nicholson delivers one of those leering broad-wink performances that polarises moviegoers. Everyone likes Jack, but I’m one of those who has little patience for those films in which he gives in to his tendency to ham it up. And as he’s also Goin’ South’s director, mad old Jack has no-one on hand to tell him when to rein it in here. He’s a likeable rascal when he does tone it down, though, and Moon immediately earns our sympathy when he’s illegally hauled back to the States after safely outracing a posse to cross the Mexican border. Of course, such a low character doesn’t really deserve our sympathy, but this incident pretty much tells us where the movie is going. The law, in the bumbling form of Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Back to the Future) and his inept sidekick, Hector (Belushi – Shame of the Jungle) are unscrupulous bad guys filled with petty spite, worse even than Moon’s old gang members who pay the imprisoned and soon-to-be hanged Moon a visit, not to set him free but to say their none-too-concerned farewells.
Fortunately for Moon, the town in which he is to be hanged has a bye-law which decrees that a man sentenced to death can be saved by one of its single womenfolk taking him for a husband. His saviour comes in the form of the pretty Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen – A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Philadelphia), who needs a man to work the gold mine she’s convinced lies under her property, and which, when unearthed, will provide her with the means to prevent the railroad from buying her out. Things go far from smoothly, however, particularly as her new husband expects to enjoy his conjugal rights…
Nicholson plays the buffoon here, so it’s something of a surprise to note the similarity between the faces he pulls for comic effect in Goin’ South, and those used for an entirely different purpose in his next movie, the classic Kubrick horror The Shining. He and Steenburgen are polar opposites, both as performers and characters, but this works to good effect, and the appealing Steenburgen somehow manages to avoid being overwhelmed by Nicholson’s hyperactive exuberance. The deepening relationship of their characters is never particularly convincing, but Nicholson and Steenburgen work so well together that it scarcely seems to matter. The fact that we know the film’s outcome from the moment Julia rescues Moon from the gallows is enough to tell us that the story isn’t so much about plot as the interaction between Julia and Henry, and the two leads do a fine job of keeping both characters likeable.
Although the movie is undeniably Nicholson’s, he’s supported by a large cast, a number of whom are actors of note at or near the beginnings of their careers. Lloyd and Belushi make the most of thin parts. Belushi in particular is given little to do – a result, perhaps, of his reported difficult nature on set – while Danny De Vito, who would go on to star with Lloyd in the hit TV comedy Taxi later the same year, has a small part as one of the members of Moon’s old gang.
Although Goin’ South has a healthy reputation and some hard-core fans, it doesn’t hold up too well under repeated viewings. The performances of the actors are certainly stronger than the material – although the level of enjoyment you receive from it will depend greatly on whether or not you’re a fan of Jack in full-on loon mode.
(Reviewed 13th March 2016)
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