Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” is a film that tells a sweet-natured story from the concept of going back in time to a certain point in your life when you feel you could do things dissimilar to the way you did before, knowing what you know now. It begins at a high-school reunion, at which 40something Peggy Bodell (Kathleen Turner) practically relives her past—not only is she reunited (and catching up) with her old friends and acquaintances from the glory days of high school, but she also imagines what things would have been like if she hadn’t married her boyfriend at the time because she was pregnant shortly before graduation. “If I knew then what I know now,” Peggy tells her friends. “I would have done things differently.” She is divorcing her disloyal husband, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who has been cheating on her and hasn’t been there for her or their two kids.
Peggy and her friends look back on high school memories and notice how times, as well as their classmates, have changed. It turns out Peggy doesn’t quite know the half of it, as she will experience her senior year for a second time. This happens when Charlie shows up at the reunion, she doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, and she suffers a heart attack (I think) and passes out. She then awakens in her 18-year-old body in the year 1960—twenty-five years before. Her 43-year-old mind is still intact, but everything else around her has changed. She relives high school, she hangs out with her friends, she dates Charlie again, she eats with her family for breakfast and dinner, and she even hears her grandmother’s voice again, which almost breaks her heart.
Peggy knows what will happen in the future, but no one else does. With this knowledge, she isn’t quite sure about how to deal with what may or may not affect her life, if she can help it. To start with, she is cold and somewhat distant towards Charlie, who can’t understand why she is acting silly lately. But she also recalls the fun she has with Charlie and relives some of those moments, including “parking.” Though, this particular parking moment is different, seeing as how she is the one who wants to go all the way, while nervous Charlie wants to get his car to start so he can take her home.
Peggy can also say the things she could have said to her parents long ago. She’s nicer and more helpful around the house. And she can even experience life with the people she may not have wanted to or was afraid to have been affiliated with—those include young, Hemingway-bashing beatnik Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O’Connor), with whom she shares pot, and math-science whiz Richard Norvik (Barry Miller), who is the only one she tells about her predicament of time-travel (she is also able to reveal inventions to him that haven’t been invented yet, to see what he can do for the future—“think ‘high-tech,’” Peggy tells him).
What it comes down to is whether Peggy will change her destiny as well as other people’s destinies, so that if and when she returns back to her old self in her present time, things will have been different from when she left. And one question I’m sure many people will be asking after watching “Peggy Sue Got Married” is whether or not Peggy really did travel back in time. Was it a dream? Did it really happen? I don’t think it really matters whether or not it really did happen, because if you ask me, “Peggy Sue Got Married” is more about an experience rather than much else. It’s the experience of reliving and revisiting what it felt like to be young again and trying to understand whether or not things were better off for you then. You know how people will say that high school is the best time of your life? What if they were right? If there is a way of knowing what will happen to you in the future, or in Peggy’s case, if there was a way of reliving those days because you have already lived the future, wouldn’t you find a way to make it feel as good as it can be? The point here is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you change events in your life—it’s how you can deal with events that are inevitable. And without giving away the ending, Coppola and co-writers Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, found an effective, subtle way of presenting that message and making a satisfying conclusion and presenting an answer to the question of whether or not Peggy really did time-travel. Some things, you just have to figure out for yourselves, and I admired that about this story.
The theme of nostalgia is present throughout “Peggy Sue Got Married” even before Peggy has her flashback experience. The high-school reunion at the beginning of the film presents what it feels like for these people to find themselves back in the good ol’ days. They’re not only there to provide setups for certain payoffs when Peggy goes back (hell, one character, in a wheelchair, is never even seen again after this opening)—they set the tone for the rest of the film.
And what would you feel/say if this ever happened to you and you weren’t sure of whether or not it was a dream? What if you answered the phone and suddenly there was the voice of your grandmother on the other end of the line? This is a voice Peggy hasn’t heard in many, many years, and there she is on the phone, making a casual call to say hello. What would you say? You couldn’t tell her what would happen to her, but you would know it, and it’d be hard to say anything.
“Peggy Sue Got Married” is a great film when it comes to the theme of nostalgia and the way it presents its story to a puzzling payoff (but in a good way), and it’s also very well-made as you can tell certain Coppola shots (there’s one such optical effect in the very first scene that I’m wondering how it was done). But there’s one very important element to its success, and that is the lead performance by Kathleen Turner. Turner is nothing short of excellent in this film. I don’t know how she was able to play this part in two different ways—as an adult and as a teenager—but she pulls it off in a spectacular performance. Sometimes she’ll even go back and forth between adult and teenager and we can catch on even though we’re just not sure how she did it. How did she change back and forth in certain scenes? Did the lighting help? Did Coppola have anything to do with this? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to watch Turner play one shot as an adult and then another shot as a teenager, because she knows her character inside and out, and she knows how each side would react to any kind of situation being thrown her way.
I know no one who has seen this movie and are reading the review will not stop reading until I say something about Nicolas Cage’s performance as Charlie, the boy Peggy will later marry and then divorce. Yes, Cage’s performance is slightly odd (but nothing as odd, to understate it, as most of his roles to come later after this) and he would only do this movie if his character’s speech impediment matched that of Pokey’s (and he was almost fired from the movie entirely because of this). But to be honest, I don’t really mind him very much here. Sure, his voice can be a little grating, but Cage gets what it’s like to be an awkward high-school teenager, and he gets the body language down as well as Turner does.
And the other actors, for the most part, had to play young and old versions of their characters—from 1986 and from 1960. They deserve credit too, in their early roles before their profile careers in film and TV, particularly Jim Carrey, Joan Allen, Catherine Hicks, Lisa Jane Persky, and Kevin J. O’Connor. Barry Miller, known at the time for his roles in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Fame,” acquits himself admirably in the role of nerdy Richard; it’s a shame his acting career didn’t go much further. Also in one of her early roles is Helen Hunt, as Peggy’s teenaged daughter. (And also look out for future director Sofia Coppola as Peggy’s kid sister.)
What have I left out? Only a handful of wonderful, delicate scenes that you’ll just have to see for yourself. “Peggy Sue Got Married” is a superb movie with sharp direction from Francis Ford Coppola, an appealing concept, and to top it all off, a great leading performance from Kathleen Turner.