Breaking Away

Released:  1979

Cast:  Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, Robyn Douglass

Oscar Wins:  Best Original Screenplay (Steve Tesich)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (Peter Yates), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Barrie), Best Original Song Score (Patrick Williams)

SUMMARY:  In Bloomington, Indiana, the site of Indiana University, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) has become obsessed with road bike racing.  He is a fan of the Italian racing team Cinzano, and is so enamored with all things Italian that he pretends to be Italian, much to the annoyance of his father Ray (Paul Dooley).  Dave has already won a number of races, and spends much of his time training.  When he is not training, he is with his three friends, Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley).  All four friends are 19, and with no intention of going to college, are trying to get jobs at the same place, rather unsuccessfully.  Since all four are locals, they are called “cutters” by the more affluent college students, referring to the quarry jobs most of their fathers held at one time (they also built much of the university).  Dave’s father Ray once worked in the quarry, but is now a used car salesman, and desperately wants his son to get a job and stop pretending to be Italian.  Dave ignores him.  While out riding one day, he meets college student Katherine (Robyn Douglass); when he returns a notebook, he pretends to be an Italian exchange student.  Katherine quickly falls for his charm, particularly after he serenades her with an Italian opera one night (with Cyril accompanying on guitar).  However, one of the other dorm residents calls Katherine’s boyfriend, and while Dave makes a clean getaway, Cyril gets beat up.  Mike is incensed when he finds out, and insists that the friends find the college boys and return the favor.  After this happens, the university president calls in the college boys and scolds them for egging on the locals; as a gesture of goodwill, he decides to invite the townspeople to participate in the college’s annual Little 500 bike race.

However, Dave’s attention is elsewhere:  he has learned that the Cinzano team is coming to town, and will be sponsoring a race.  He trains furiously, and when the race day arrives, he is the only cyclist able to keep up with the Italians.  Unfortunately, the Italians do not take kindly to this, and sabotage Dave twice during the race, causing him to badly crash.  The event thoroughly disillusions Dave:  he stops pretending to be Italian (much to his father’s surprise), tears down all of his racing and Cinzano posters, and gets a job at his father’s car dealership.  He also finally tells Katherine the truth about his identity, causing her to angrily storm off.  Meanwhile, Mike has learned about the Little 500 and has hatched a plan to finally get back at the college guys:  they will enter as a team, and with Dave riding most if not all of the laps, they are a sure winner.  Dave has no interest in doing this until an event at work affects his father’s health.  As he recovers, Ray starts to spend more time with his son, and explains how his pride in helping to build the university somehow never translated into a feeling of being welcome on the campus.  It is ultimately Dave’s mother who convinces him to race, and she also provides team shirts with the name “Cutters” on the front.  Having patched things up with their son, both parents attend the Little 500 as spectators.  At the Little 500, most of the teams switch out riders every few laps, but as planned, Dave stays on the bike for the Cutters.  Everything is going well — Dave has a large lead — until he injures his leg in a crash.  Moocher, Cyril and Mike are now forced to ride in order to keep the team in the race:  though they fight hard (especially Mike, who actually makes up some ground), they lose the lead Dave built.  Seeing how hard his team is fighting for him, and his father in the crowd, Dave has the others tape his feet to the pedals, and prepares to ride the rest of the race.  On the last lap, he manages to eke out a slight lead (over the same boys who beat up Cyril) just before the finish, and win the race.  In the aftermath, Ray takes up cycling, and Dave enrolls at the university.  One day, he meets a French girl, and is soon telling her about the Tour de France and the merit of French cyclists.

MY TAKE:  I feel like I have a bit of a personal connection to this movie:  my father and brother both love this movie, having been very into cycling at one point themselves.  My brother, in particular, would periodically burst into the song about Buds and the A&P that Dennis Quaid sings at the beginning of the movie.  I was kind of surprised to find that it was actually on the list, because it seemed more like a niche movie to me:  you don’t see a whole lot of movies about road cycling.  It also wasn’t a huge-budget film, and both the cast and crew were pretty much unknowns.  Consider this:  the film’s biggest name was Jackie Earle Haley, who was famous for his role in The Bad News Bears.  Several of the cast members went on to bigger things:  obviously, Dennis Quaid became a huge star, and Paul Dooley also had a very successful career (fun fact:  he’s the voice of Sarge in the Cars movies).  Daniel Stern’s first film role was this movie:  he would go on to star in Diner, and perhaps most famously, as Joe Pesci’s sidekick Marv in Home Alone and Home Alone 2 (on that point, how is Home Alone not on the list?).  Basically, it’s not a movie that you would think would be a huge hit.  It was, though, and it’s just a really fun movie.  Paul Dooley steals the first half of the movie with his blustering about Dave’s affected Italian ways — although I’m glad he and his son eventually patched things up, it was a lot funnier when they were at odds.  You also get the underdog triumph story, though it’s actually pretty believable:  if Dave could keep up with a professional cycling team, he’s definitely good enough to beat some college kids.  Obviously his friends were not that good, and that’s why they lost the lead, but you gotta love the effort they put in, trying to keep the team in the race.  Mike pedals furiously for a few laps, and manages to make up some ground.  Of course, it is only when Dave finally rejoins the race that they truly get back into contention.  It’s a familiar sports story, with some unique angles:  there’s something endearing, not to mention humorous, about the fact that Dave acts Italian all the time, even around his family and friends.  Perhaps even more funny, his friends don’t seem to react any differently.

RATING:  Not ground-breaking, but very fun.

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