Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“The Flamingo Kid” is a movie that fascinated me in how non-formulaic it is. When you get down to the basic premise, it’s about a kid from a poor neighborhood takes a job at a beach club, where he idolizes one of the fanciest locals who shows him a new way of looking at life that is against what the kid’s father wants for his son. Before the summer is over, the kid will know which path to ultimately take and will learn a few valuable life lessons. I don’t know how director/co-writer Garry Marshall did it, but he managed to take this old-school idea and form it into a treasure of a movie that is not only solid and entertaining, but also original in show, very well-constructed, and more effective than you might expect.
“The Flamingo Kid” is about a young man from Brooklyn who lives with his family in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. His name is Jeffrey (Matt Dillon), and he’s a good kid about to leave for college. But for now, summer is here and his working-class father (Hector Elizondo) has set up a job for him in an office. But when Jeffrey’s friends bring him to assist in a card game at a classy beach club in Long Island, Jeffrey decides he likes the place and is even offered a job as a valet, which he accepts.
By the way, the scene in which Jeffrey sits with his family at dinner, and tells his father that he’s decided to work at the beach instead of taking the job that his father has set up for him, is one of many pleasant surprises in this movie. This could have ended up in a screaming match between father and son, but it resolves in a civilized manner (though not without cynicism). I liked that scene.
Jeffrey parks cars at the beach club, but is soon moved up to “cabana boy.” While serving people, he becomes friendly with a sexy young woman (Janet Jones) with whom he forms a nice relationship, and he also meets a flashy car dealer, Phil Brody (Richard Crenna), who is also a master at gin rummy, which is often played with the locals. Brody comes to like Jeffrey and decides to teach him a few things he learned in life.
And here we have two opposing sides of Jeffrey’s coming-of-age journey. On the one hand, you have a hard-working father who wants what’s best for his son, because he knows that dreaming doesn’t get you far in life, as he found out in his time. And then there’s Brody, who hasn’t gone to college and mainly has the beach club, the game of gin rummy, and his car dealership as his necessities in life (he also believes that “you are what you wear,” which is his excuse for always wearing fancy clothes). Jeffrey comes closer to joining Brody’s side, as he now feels that his old neighborhood has grown very boring and is fascinated by what goes on at this beach club. When he tells his father that he’s decided not to go to college and work at Brody’s dealership, his father doesn’t believe in this “easy money” type of career and becomes impatient with Jeffrey. His advice doesn’t come clear for Jeffrey, who is constantly led to listen to Brody’s ideas. (And it doesn’t help that Brody is easy to believe.) And so the film is about how Jeffrey will learn over the course of the summer to respect his father and see what kind of man he is, and also see what kind of man Brody actually is.
Despite what I’ve just described, this material is not entirely predictable and portrayed in a way that both sides of this kid’s life each have a way of making it seem that they’re both right, instead of the movie just taking the easy way through with just one person clearly knowing all. Because of that and how effective it is in handling the growth of the Jeffrey character, “The Flamingo Kid” is a very well-done coming-of-age story. It’s able to tell the story of this young man’s journey in a successful, credible way that doesn’t feel rushed or contrived at all; it’s played just right, which is a most pleasant surprise.
But I don’t want to make “The Flamingo Kid” seem kind of dreary, because it really is entertaining and also very funny. It has a great share of comedic moments, particularly when it comes to seeing Brody’s lifestyle, a few side characters and their antics on the beach, and also with Brody’s wife (Jessica Walter), who is posh and conceited and so stuck-up that she even shows her disapproval of a “parking attendant” having dinner with the family with suspicious looks as she sips her wine. There are more moments like that are worthy of some good chuckles or laughs.
I forgot to mention that “The Flamingo Kid” takes place in the 1960s, and the film pays good attention to detail in giving it that ‘60s feel. Indeed, this does feel like one of those fun ‘60s beach-movies at the time, when a kid goes to the beach and meets the people who spend most of their time there and know (and envy) each other very well. Also, the ‘60s soundtrack is appropriate with some good, timeless, memorable songs.
The characters in “The Flamingo Kid” are all richly developed and complete, and they’re played by really good actors. Richard Crenna, in particular, is excellent here as Mr. Brody. He plays it in a proper manner that makes his vulgar moments and his manipulative moments seem all the more fascinating while also occasionally making for some good laughs. He’s smart and wise, but maybe to an extent, which of course Jeffrey will come to learn. It’s a nicely-developed character that Crenna pulls off successfully. Hector Elizondo is a three-dimensional working-class father who truly knows best. But it really comes down to Matt Dillon in the lead role. He’s terrific in this movie—he’s natural, believable, subtle, and likable. The character is bright, but doesn’t quite know all the answers about life, which is what he’ll learn (and he does learn, in a fresh way), and here’s a surprise—he’s able to teach the adults a thing or two as well. His performance in this movie reminded me a little of James Dean in a sense.
I really love this movie. It’s very well-put-together in the way it presents the environment that these complete, three-dimensional characters inhabit; the actors do solid work; no scene is too short or too long, which surprised me; there are some very effective funny moments; the ‘60s nostalgia is present while also telling a timeless tale; the writing is great; the ending works so well; and so on. It’s just an all-around entertaining movie that I have nothing but kind words for. Garry Marshall and co-writer Neal Marshall (no relation) have crafted a wonderful summer movie that really leaves an impact.