Published on April 4th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Outsiders 
Summary: With the talent involved, Coppola's The Outsiders should have been a powerhouse, but instead feels very mediocre today.
PG | 91 min.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola | Screenplay: Kathleen Rowell (based on S.E. Hinton’s novel)
Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze
Studio: Zoetrope Studios | Distribution: Warner Bros.
I suppose it’s possible I had my hopes set too high when I sat down to watch The Outsiders. But then again, how could I not?
In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola was fresh out of filmmaking hell. Five years earlier he had suffered a complete personal breakdown while shooting Apocalypse Now in the jungles of the Philippines, then followed it up by filing for bankruptcy during the making of his panned musical One from the Heart. It’s safe to say old Frank needed to do something slightly low-key.
His screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s beloved 1967 coming-of-age novel The Outsiders features a cast that no studio could have afford ten years later, but a style that’s so dated it feels campy today.
The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960’s and the constant turf war being waged between two opposing social groups–greasers and socs. The plot is centered on a group of teenage kids identified as “greasers” by their wild hair and affection for sleeveless t-shirts and jeans. The leader of this group is a small-time badass named Dallas (Matt Dylan), but our central character is the soft-hearted Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell). Ponyboy and his closest friend Johnny (Ralph Macchio) get jumped by some “socs”–identified by their neat khakis and expensive sweaters. During the incident, Johnny kills one of their attackers with a switchblade, leading the mates to hide outside of town for a few days.
Other characters in the ensemble include Ponyboy’s older brothers Sodapop (Rob Lowe) and Darry (Patrick Swayze), the typically-drunk Two-Bit (Emilio Estevez), and the wily Steve Randle (Tom Cruise)–who was apparently absent on nicknaming day. These greasers serve as a loyal surrogate family to one another since no actual parents are seen in the film’s duration.
As is evident, the cast is full of future A-listers but the whole time I watched The Outsiders I felt like I was merely watching a bad knockoff of Rebel Without a Cause. It boggles my mind to wonder why out of such a talented pool of young actors, Coppola would elect to give C. Thomas Howell & Ralph Macchio the deepest roles. These two are by-far the weakest dramatic actors of the group and it’s evident in scenes that should play heavy but instead feel like a made-for-Hallmark production. To imagine Cruise & Estevez engaging in the film’s hospital scenes, for instance instead of Howell & Macchio, actually pisses me off!
I never read Hinton’s novel but this movie’s message is plastered right in front of the audience’s face. Watching The Outsiders, it would be just as easy to imagine a group of black teenagers playing the greaser roles while blonde white kids played the socs. One of my favorite scenes features soc girl Cherry (an adorable Diane Lane) telling Ponyboy, “Things are rough all over,” as he mistakenly thinks it’s easy for her side. I previously wrote about the 1993 film The Sandlot, saying it was an idealized version of 1960’s America–consider The Outsiders a dystopian version of the same era. This film opens with a fight scene and is full of violent tension from start to finish.
From these descriptions, you may think The Outsiders is a heavy film, dealing well with weighty subject matter like racism and class warfare…I wish this were the case. Instead, the dialogue and cinematography are closer to West Side Story (without the badass music) than a movie from the 1980’s. Rather than providing an edgy take on growing up in a divided world, Coppola produced a throwback to a dated but elegant time in film. There is one scene in particular where Ponyboy stands before what looks like a backdrop with ultra-dramatic lighting delivering a reading of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”–it should be moving but instead you feel like chuckling.
This poem does provide the movie’s most famous line though, as a dying Johnny tells Ponyboy to “stay gold”–referring to keeping the shred of innocence that made the pair “outsiders” from the rest of their gang. Oh, and in case you didn’t figure that metaphor out, an insulting last-scene voiceover explains the entire thing!
To Outsiders fans, it may seem like I’m being brutal in this review but the more you dwell on the possibilities that were present here–the more frustrated you grow. That said, the supporting cast more than carry their weight and the movie is paced well making for a fast 90 minutes. Ultimately, if you want to see onscreen teenage angst among powerful actors, Rebel Without a Cause remains the “gold” standard.
…Did you get that, Ponyboy?