Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie indulges in every one of his tendencies in the worst, most sentimental way possible: the nostalgically glowing cinematography, the syrupy score, the wide-eyed kids, you name it. It’s like some first-time director thought they figured out what made E.T. work but in fact missed the point entirely.
And so help me, it works on me every single time.
I watched it again this morning, and when Leo, the one resident of the retirement home who doesn’t join in on the magical game playing, begs to be given his youth back as well, I found myself choking up and wondering why something so blatantly manipulative was doing this to me. It probably helps that it’s the most understated moment in the piece; the score lays off the gas for a bit, and Leo’s plea is delivered quietly and simply. It’s the one moment that feels like it’s coming from a real person.
However, Spielberg is a master of making stuff like this just work. I know I’m being manipulated in the easiest, most obvious way, and yet there I am giving myself in to it. It’s like he can somehow connect right into my limbic system and happily fire my synapses to feel whatever he wants me to, even while I’m thinking of dozens of reasons why I shouldn’t. In enjoyable fluff like this, he’s the stage magician with just one or two good tricks that maybe we eventually figure out, but while we’re watching, we don’t care. And at twenty minutes, it doesn’t stick around long enough to really overstay its welcome. Right about the time the treacle is on the verge of becoming too much, it’s off to Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes from hell. It’s just not a big enough of a deal to get all that worked up over.
Still, it’s incredibly minor Spielberg. Being the only light piece in the film probably doesn’t do it any favors, making its sentimentality really stand out against the other three darker segments. But in the end, the lightness casts a pale shadow, whether in comparison to Spielberg’s body of work, the show that inspired the film, or, honestly, the final two segments of the film, in which two relatively lesser-known directors (Dante and George Miller of Mad Max fame) showed they had a better grasp of what The Twilight Zone was about than the two superstars (Spielberg and John Landis) who preceded them.
But at least “Kick the Can” didn’t kill Vic Morrow, so it’s got that going for it.
Tomorrow: Okay, maybe Occasionally.