Time travel has always held a certain fascination for mankind; the ability to pinpoint and then go back to remedy, alter or merely begin our lives anew, but with our youth and vitality restored, and a greater, more intuitive understanding of the choices previously made still firmly imbedded in our minds. The ‘road not taken’ has its perennial appeal, primarily because no matter the set of circumstances the grass always seems to be greener on the other side of that proverbial fence. Science has been rather circumspect about its own theories regarding the ‘space/time’ continuum, while the writers and the poets have had their way indulging a more romanticized view; everything from ancient Hindu mysticism to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Dicken’s A Christmas Carol satisfying our need to revisit the past in order to rectify the inevitable misfires. In totem, literature’s address of time travel has largely revolved around an even more impossible human desire; to stave off the inevitable aging process and death – perhaps by entering the world of a Lewis Carroll where everyone can live forever.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) is all about such second chances; its protagonist a seemingly ageless divorcée who suffers a massive heart attack at her high school reunion and is then magically teleported back to her senior year in high school circa 1960. The Jerry Leichtling/Arlene Sarner screenplay is rather unevenly and awkwardly paced – setting up its premise in earnest, but introducing far too many characters in the present, some entirely jettisoned after our regression into Peggy Sue’s (Kathleen Turner) past. The most obvious and glaring omission is Rosalie Testa (Lucinda Jenney), first introduced as one of the coordinators of the reunion; paralyzed and wheelchair bound.
After a tender embrace from Peggy Sue, Rosalie virtually disappears from the film. We never see her in the past, nor do we learn of the circumstances by which she came to be disabled. Arguably, Rosalie isn’t the focus of our story, but then why such a prominent introduction? We also lose more meaningful interactions between Peggy Sue and her two best friends, Carol Heath (Catherine Hicks) and Maddy Nagle (Joan Allen) almost from the moment Peggy Sue awakens from her haze at the 1960 blood drive and is driven home by Maddy and Carol, each infrequently reappearing thereafter throughout the rest of the story.
This leaves Peggy Sue Got Married’s narrative to not entirely successful bit of regression therapy for our central protagonist. Arguably, given the opportunity to change her past and make her future better, Peggy Sue willingly choses to follow a destiny she already knows belongs to her; namely, to become Charlie Bodell’s (Nicholas Cage) wife. It’s an obdurate scenario at best; Peggy Sue’s preliminary aspirations inexplicably morphing along the way. Her logic is superficially explained away in a locket given to Peggy Sue by Charlie; one that contains baby pictures of her now adult children who will cease to exist if she does not follow through and relive her past verbatim.
Yet Peggy Sue begins her journey with an ingrained defiance to do exactly the opposite. She confides her time travel experience to the only man from the past she believes will be able to appreciate her situation: Richard Norvik (Barry Miller); a brilliant physicist in the present regarded as little more than an anti-social geek in high school. Naturally, Richard is skeptical, believing he is part of an elaborate practical joke to mock his intelligence. Gradually, however, Peggy Sue manages to convince Richard that she is telling the truth – or, at least…the truth as she perceives it.
The first half of Peggy Sue Got Married is all about wish fulfillment. Having endured the bitter decline and break up of her own marriage in the present, Peggy Sue Kelcher is afforded the opportunity to travel back to the moment when she made the decision to marry her high school sweetheart – forever shaping the course of her life as a wife and mother. At the reunion we hear Peggy Sue affectionately waxing about her school girl’s infatuation for Michal Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O’Connor); a dark and brooding rebel rouser back in the day with aspirations of becoming a writer. Unable to locate Michael and send him an invitation for the reunion, Peggy Sue’s recollections of Fitzsimmons as an aloof and mysterious figure - the only boy she wishes she had gone to bed with - are perfectly preserved in the present. This sets up the other premise in Coppola’s movie: that the past is never quite as rosy as we remember it. For upon her sojourn to the imperfect yesteryear Peggy Sue discovers that the Michael she perceived and the one who actually existed are not one in the same. Michael is unstable and odd to say the least - and very full of himself indeed, with a queer angst bordering on self-pity; dangerous too in his recreational use of marijuana and alcohol and thoroughly misguided in his verve for a polygamous lifestyle to include Peggy Sue as she supports him on a pig farm in Utah. No, it just won’t work. At least, not in the way Peggy Sue once imagined that it might have.
Of course, the real problem with Coppola’s movie is that it runs amuck with the precepts of the space/time continuum to ever be taken as anything more than a Hollywood reincarnation of factual research science has committed to our limited understanding of the concept of time travel – if any such understanding is even possible in the first place. Peggy Sue’s confessions to Richard ought to alter his future at a faster rate. Arguably they do not. At one point, Richard deduces that if Peggy Sue is, as she claims to be, from the future then she can stand in front of a fire engine racing down the street because it will pass through her; she having no solid form beyond the strangely concrete one Richard is able to drag into the street and place directly in front of oncoming traffic. Unable to go through with the ‘experiment’, Peggy Sue begins her tutelage of Richard instead. This, however, makes no sense – because, having learned the secrets to events yet to take place should also afford Richard the opportunity to manipulate them to his advantage and thus alter the future for everyone else too.
The first two-thirds of Coppola’s movie is marginally successful at recapturing the anxiety and wonderment of revisiting one’s own past some twenty-five years removed from it. Peggy Sue is reunited with her parents (Barbara Harris and Don Murray), her estranged sister, Nancy (Sophia Coppola) and finally, her devoted grandparents, Elizabeth (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Barney (Leon Ames) to whom Peggy also eventually confides her secret of time travel and is wholly embraced, understood and even supported in her fervent desire to return to the present where her now adult children Scott (who we never see) and Beth (Helen Hunt) await.
Regrettably, the last act of Peggy Sue Got Married is a narrative disaster; one that all but implodes under Coppola’s weighty mismanagement of the visuals. Peggy Sue is taken to Barney’s moose lodge in a vain attempt to teleport her back to her own time; the lodge’s grand poobah, Leo (John Carradine) invoking an ancient ritual that culminates with Charlie turning out the lights and kidnapping Peggy Sue to a nearby greenhouse where he proposes marriage during a violent thunderstorm. Charlie is momentarily rejected. But in presenting Peggy Sue with the locket in which she has long since carried cherished photos of her two children Charlie weakens her resolve, enough to allow him his moment and thus return Peggy Sue to the only place where she truly belongs.
This ending is a genuine downer; Peggy Sue awakening in an impossibly homey and impractical hospital room with Charlie at her bedside, praying for her return. Charlie confesses that his midlife crisis – and the affair it spawned – has come to an end. He suddenly realizes how much he is still in love with Peggy Sue. She briefly resists his advances, but then seemingly forgives him his indiscretions all at once, even inviting him over for Sunday dinner with his children. Given that Peggy Sue has just been revived from a near death experience she looks remarkably healthy. No tubes – not even an intravenous drip – and having instant recall regarding the moment of her return to the present.
This Wizard of Oz-esque finale doesn’t really work because unlike the aforementioned 1939 classic, our protagonist has not magically returned from some fanciful kingdom over the rainbow that was undeniably a dream, but from her own distant past that is not a dream at all – a past she attempted to – and, in fact, has been marginally successful in altering. Was it all a dream? Coppola’s finale seems to suggest as much; just a hallucination brought on by Peggy Sue’s heart attack.
Yet, in claiming as much Coppola utterly deflates both the premise and the purpose of all that has gone before this moment – namely to prove to his protagonist, as well as the audience, the old Stephen Leacock adage “you can’t go home again” or – perhaps – can, but are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past even when given hindsight and every opportunity to do things differently. So, what was the point of Peggy Sue’s imaginary time travel? Was it to discover for herself that she was already living in a fool’s paradise? This, the audience already knows from Peggy Sue’s recollections at the reunion. We didn’t need two hours of period drama and intermittent screwball comedy to reiterate the point.
Peggy Sue Got Married is an oddity; one that occasionally contains some very charming vignettes; particularly the moment when Peggy Sue proudly warbles ‘My Country T’is of Thee’ with hand over heart and a renewed sense in meaning for the lyrics and the moment – the latter, a bygone ritual in the public school system – or when she tells her algebra teacher, Mr. Snellgrove (Ken Grantham) that in the future she happens to know she will have absolutely no use for the courseware being taught. These are quaint and expertly staged bits of introspection that only a tale about time travel could tell convincingly. Yet, on the whole Coppola’s direction is uninspired. He also has trouble breaking into the past regression narrative.
As example; the reunion is bedecked in shiny silver mylar balloons that compliment Peggy Sue’s shimmering silver poodle skirt – much more a design creation derived from 1980s kitsch than vintage 1950s lace and crinoline. When Peggy Sue awakens in the past she is still wearing this same dress, a distinct clash set against Theodora Van Runkle’s other impeccable 50s apparel recreations. Escorted by Maddy and Carol down an abandoned hallway Peggy glimpses one of the mylar balloons from the reunion eerily drifting away from her. Why it should have made this time traveling transition along with Peggy Sue is anybody’s guess. Ostensibly, it has something to do with Coppola’s attempt to illustrate the spooky convergence between the present and past, fast diverging from one another.
On the ride home Maddy and Carol curiously eye Peggy Sue; the pair understandably perplexed by her bewilderment as they drive through a presumably familiar downtown core populated by clean cut pedestrians and vintage automobiles circa 1960. But Coppola’s shots of this recreated cityscape are rather limited; no period billboards or glimpses of archetypal shop windows (a la, say Back to the Future 1985) to complete the effect, presumably because the budget for Dean Tavoularis’s production design just wasn’t there. Instead, we get a very brief and thoroughly perplexing insert of a clock tower.
Thankfully, most of Tavoularis’s work does manage to recapture this lost era of Americana, thanks in part to Jordan Cronenweth’s lush and moderately diffused cinematography. This favors and compliments the palette of 50s pastiche pastels. It also helps to have such stellar performers as Leon Ames, Maureen O’Sullivan, Barbara Harris and Don Murray added into the mix; all alumni who lived through and beyond the era, who can quaintly recall some of its wide-eyed optimism and rekindle this intangible for the movie audience. Regrettably, Nicholas Cage and Kathleen Turner are very ‘of the moment’ themselves – that moment being the 1980s. Cage is an ill-fit in particular. He just seems unable to assimilate into the period. His costumes wear him, not the other way around. Turner is a tad more convincing, but her infrequent lapses into mannerisms that could only have come from the present diffuse her performance and make it less convincing as the story wears on.
And it does, regrettably wear on; the last act indulging far too much in mysticism and the occult – concepts readily unheard of at the cusp of the 1960s – even inside a Moose Lodge - and more readily suppressed within society under the guise of Eisenhower’s idyllic myth of suburbia. For example, it is inconceivable that Peggy Sue’s grandparents would embrace her theory of time travel – they having come from an even more distant generation than her own; one ensconced in turn-of-the-last-century pragmatism rather than the jet-propulsion promises of an as-yet-unrealized space age future.
No, in the final analysis, Peggy Sue Got Married doesn’t really work as narrative storytelling. Superficially, it does occasionally fulfill our collective fascination for time travel and ‘what if?’ scenarios. But on the whole the story remains a perplexing convolution of thoughts and ideas having zero toe-hold in the precepts of time travel itself. Coppola and his screenplay veer too wildly in and out of the fanciful, the actors playing to the set-piece gags rather than the film’s period mood. By contrast, in Robert Zemekis’ Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly astutely informs the audience that he thinks he is losing his mind. In Peggy Sue Got Married Kathleen Turner merely suggests she is caught in some purgatory-inspired/death-induced hallucination. As such, all bets for what follows are off, with Coppola feeling secure in his ‘anything goes’ premise. Unfortunately, Coppola has forgotten that within this framework he needs to do far more than merely maintain a certain air of believability for the exercise; to achieve more than fill the eye of his camera with a quaint rose-glasses retrospective for the way things arguably never were and can never be again.
Peggy Sue Got Married makes its way to Blu-ray via Image Entertainment. The movie was made for Columbia Pictures via its Tri-Star label, and Sony ought to have been instrumental in remastering the original film elements for this hi-def debut. Unfortunately, the image quality represented on this disc belies any involvement hitherto by Sony Home Video. There’s nothing inherently awful about this 1080p transfer – and yet, nothing outstanding about it either. Colors seem to have been artificially enhanced, flesh looking very orange at times. The image is bright, but I don’t see any manipulation of contrast levels. The biggest disappointment herein is image detail – wholly lacking and unrefined. The exteriors fair better on the whole. But a lot of the film takes place in darkly lit interiors, and these suffer from lower than anticipated contrast and a significant overall softness. Grain can also look a tad thick at times. Image clarity really isn’t the issue so much as image crispness which is practically nonexistent. Jordan Cronenweth’s Oscar-nominated cinematography has not been given its due herein.
The audio has its own shortcomings; chiefly in its center channel focused dialogue that seems to all but eclipse other sonic information (music and effects) coming in from the side and rear channels. Take again, the moment where Maddy and Carol drive Peggy Sue home – a scene punctuated by The Champs’ 1958 smash single ‘Tequila’. On the screen this song thundered over the soundtrack, a sort of aural assault on Peggy Sue’s already inundated senses. Played back on this disc the song is merely diegetic music trilling from the car radio and with about as much ambiance as any car radio circa 1960 was capable of providing. There are no extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)