“The Buddy System, 1984”

“You’ve gained seven pounds. If you want to put something in your mouth, try a gun.”

The Buddy System, 1984 (Richard Dreyfuss), 20th Century Fox

Okay, what the Hell is going on here? Why can’t Dreyfuss and Sarandon make it work? There’s no direct hostility (at least later on), but there is anxiety between two people, man and woman, in their late ’20s, early ’30s (ostensibly, and I’m just guessing, based on the dialogue) who miraculously have sex and then decide to be good friends. Even though they know the ins-and-outs (and the sexual organs) of each other. I surmise The Buddy System isn’t so much about the Dreyfuss/Sarandon conundrum as it is about poor little Wil Wheaton. Wil is the wayward, dejected, lonely child of stenographer Susan Sarandon (herself a single mom living with her own possessive mom, All in the Family’s Jean Stapleton) who strikes up a friendship with Richard Dreyfuss’ school security guard. It seems Sarandon and her kid have been scamming the school, by pretending to live in the designated school district and using a fake mailing address. Dreyfuss is about to bust them. I didn’t know this was such a problem; we’re talking about educating children, for crying out loud.

Shut up, Wil!

Dreyfuss takes a liking to the kid and promises not to spill the beans. Even though Sarandon is incensed by Wil’s attempts to pair up her and Dreyfuss, the kid still hangs out with him. It turns out Dreyfuss is a gifted inventor, but his real passion is writing. He encourages and inspires Wil to read, which surprises Sarandon, and it’s obvious Dreyfuss is a good influence on the kid, unlike Wil’s real Dad, who, in his words, “took a powder” after he knocked up his Mom. He hasn’t quite gotten the hang of his most recent novel, so he plunges into his work as an inventor. He finds an investor for his portable dog-washing contraption. His flighty on-again, off-again girlfriend (Nancy Allen) dumps him, but then (like a true emotional vampire) looks him up when she’s low on blood. Sarandon, Dreyfuss, and Wheaton make for an interesting family unit, and it works for a while as an assexual husband/wife heteronormative dynamic. Sorry about the use of the word “heteronormative” – but that’s all I could come up with for the Dreyfuss/Sarandon conundrum.

Unfortunately when Nancy Allen shows up again for another oil change, Dreyfuss makes himself scarce, and Sarandon has to go back to the life to which she has become accustomed: clinging neediness from Jean Stapleton (whom I had always imagined spoke like Edith Bunker in her civilian life). Her mother is a bit of an emotional leech in her own right. Her mother needs Sarandon to be dependent on her, so she can be dependent upon her daughter and grandson. Without Sarandon, she has no purpose, or believes she has no purpose. She consistently fills Sarandon with dread, making her afraid to be her own person, to embrace independence. Sarandon takes a stenography test, gets a promotion, and moves out of the house. She and Wil take up residence in a nice, but small apartment with a backyard. This is one of the few movies I’ve seen where taking an apartment is a step-up. I like that. Apartments are cozy, more secure, less expensive to maintain, and the heating/electricity bills are considerably lower. It makes sense.

The Buddy System seem to be wish fulfillment on the part of Wil Wheaton. He just wants a family. A mom and a dad. The movie played constantly on cable television between 1984 and 1986. I mean it had to have been on every day. I had a very similar upbringing to young Wil. Lonely, strange (precocious is the word my wife used to describe him) and yes, there are pitfalls to having only your single mother for a parent. He desperately wants a dad, and he thinks Dreyfuss fits the bill perfectly. Looking at it again courtesy of a Key Video VHS tape, the movie still resonates with me. Sarandon seems to be in a perpetual state of confusion, whereas Dreyfuss is some kind of a frustrated genius. They have their own personalized antagonists in Nancy Allen and Jean Stapleton; characters designed to keep them stagnant or fearful of either enjoyment or fulfillment. When they reunite at film’s conclusion, you’re still not sure they can make it work as lovers, but Wil Wheaton’s smile when he sees them together does give you hope.

The Buddy System was an extremely difficult movie to find. At the time I was looking for it, I couldn’t even find scenes online. I did manage to procure the Key Video VHS tape from a collector. Curiously, you have a movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon (two Academy Award winners) with Jean Stapleton (three-time Emmy Award winner) that received only a perfunctory VHS/Beta release, not available on Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu Ray. I knew when I started Vintage Cable Box, I had to take another look at this movie and I’m glad I did. In a way, it represents closure for me as I wrap up this series next week with a classic movie I’m sure you’ll all remember.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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