Cinema: Hanging Tough Gung Ho

Directed by Ron Howard Screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

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Been a long twilight for the good working-class people of Hadleyville, Pa. Detroit closed the car factory, and life is desperation on the dole. For bad times, big gambles: send slick-shaggy Hunt Stevenson (Michael Keaton) to Tokyo so he can persuade a thriving Japanese automaker to establish a plant in his hometown. Then, when the do-it-our-way executives of Assan Motors demand that their American employees work harder for less money, have Hunt convince his pals, speciously, that there is a pot of gold at the end of the assembly line. Poor, distraught workers, when they discover they have been gulled. And poor Hunt, doing the wrong things for the best reasons. He's the man that corrupted Hadleyville.

Preston Sturges used to write and direct this stuff pretty well, with gusts of anarchic energy and a gaggle of pruny character actors to undercut the sentiment. Frank Capra was a master at building social comedy to the apex of hysteria, then pulling a happy-ending miracle out of his hat. Ron Howard, even after Splash and Cocoon, ain't these guys, yet. When he lets his film relax into hip facetiousness, and when Keaton parades his elfin jock swagger, Gung Ho is agreeable. But its relentless stereotyping of the Japanese provokes winces and worse. Its tone swings violently from pratfall to preachment, from an indictment of featherbed laziness to an extended beer-commercial celebration of the mythical American worker. Perhaps the brand of canny moral exuberance that Gung Ho finally prescribes is available these days only to Presidents, evangelists and coaches in the N.C.A.A. Final Four. On the big screen it seems suffocatingly smug.