Honky Tonk Freeway is an early 1980s comedy about the fictional small town of Ticlaw in Florida. It has an economy that relies on tourism, but is deemed too insignificant to warrant an exit on the newly constructed freeway. With the whole world passing them by, the townspeople, under the leadership of mayor/preacher Kirby T Calo (the charismatic William Devane) decide to strike back against the corrupt authorities and let the world know they exist. It is directed by John Schlesinger (the British talent behind Billy Liar, Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man).
The story, or rather stories of Honky Tonk Freeway are told through vignettes, since the action follows the separate adventures of a large cast of characters; the wheeze being that they will all ultimately come together as they descend on Ticlaw. Some of the stories are well-crafted, and the stellar cast also makes the movie an attractive draw.
The unlikely romance that develops between Beau Bridges’ wannabee children’s author and Beverly D’Angelo’s sassy waitress, carrying around the ashes of her dead mother, is perhaps the most successful aspect of the movie, and it’s a shame they have to share screen time with so many other characters. There’s a fantastic cameo by Jessica Tandy, who plays an alcoholic in denial with great poignancy and wit. She shares some lovely scenes with Hume Cronyn, her doting but long-suffering husband (in real life too!). William Devane (Hitchcock’s Family Plot, and seen recently reprising his role as President Heller in 24) is always worth watching, and he’s a lot of fun as the mayor of Ticlaw, the character who loosely holds the whole film together.
Yet the film is decidedly hit and miss. Some moments are very funny. Other moments are dreadful. The ludicrous heist by George Dzundza and Joe Grifasi is played with a real acid critique of the American banking system and would stand on its own merits as a short film. Geraldine Page’s Mother Superior and Deborah Rush’s novice nun raise a good ratio of laughs. Who doesn’t love a comedy nun double act, right?
On the other hand, there are extensive scenes of mass car pile-ups and serious road traffic accidents, uncomfortably played out to whistles and comedy sound effects; and the thin plot is resolved with an act of criminal damage about which nobody bats an eyelid. They must all be having too good a time in Ticlaw. Schlesinger’s handle on the comedy and the intimacy of the evolving relationships plays to his strengths; the rest of the movie feels oddly disjointed, and it’s an unusual project for the late British director to have attached his name to. Tellingly, it’s the last time he was in charge of a high-budget production.
In some respects it’s easy to see why Honky Tonk Freeway was such a costly flop at the box office in 1981. In the times of austerity we currently enjoy, the movie would certainly resonate more with audiences now than in the relatively affluent times in which it was birthed. We don’t want to give Honky Tonk Freeway too much credit though. It’s hardly withering satire, and far more could, and perhaps should have been made of the quickly-dropped subplot of corrupt officials (the same sort of behaviour was also ruining British towns and cities at the time): but its feel-good goofiness and larger than life characters may well sucker you in. Honky Tonk Freeway is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, and some parts of it are actually rather good. It’s also probably the only movie in which you can see William Devane waterskiing from the back of an elephant: and that’s worth anybody’s time and money.
The extras comprise a couple of trailers and a picture gallery.