I adore hangout movies. What’s a “hangout movie,” you ask? Well, it’s a movie where a group of characters do exactly what it says—they hang out together, often at work, in bars, apartments, or anywhere, really. They’re often found-family films also, and the workplace is central to many of them because sometimes the people you spend the most time with every week turn out to be your coworkers.
Hangout films are light on plot and heavy on characterization, dialogue, and how it feels to live life at that particular moment in these character’s lives. Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977) is basically the definition of a hangout movie for me. Nothing really propels the narrative because there’s barely a narrative to propel. Instead we get a series of scenes that loosely tell a story about young people who think the best parts of their lives happened already and that “nothing ever really changes.” The characters are writers, reporters, journalists, and editors working at an alt-weekly paper in Boston—The Back Bay Mainline—who say things like, “They say that Rock & Roll is here to stay. But where? Certainly not at my place, it’s too small.” As The Film Yap perfectly puts it, “Between the Lines qualifies for COFF status—Criminally Overlooked or Forgotten Films.” Released during a decade positively overflowing with greatness at the cinema, Between the Lines was unfairly neglected for too long. It’s a masterpiece of the low-key, slow-charm, hangout film subgenre.
The cast is brilliant, filled with then-mostly-unknowns who would soon become stars, like Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Bruno Kirby, Jill Eichenberry, Joe Morton, Lindsay Crouse, and Marilu Henner. Goldblum gives what I would describe as a proto-Goldblumian performance. He’d had a handful or more film and TV credits already, like playing “Freak #1” in Death Wish (1974) and “Hood #3 in St. Ives (1976). Between the Lines was one of his first major, meaty roles, one that allowed him to shine in that uniquely odd and quirky way that only Jeff Goldblum shines. As the paper’s music critic Max Arloff, Goldblum is all wiry, manic energy, sliding from scene to scene adorned in his iconic red satin jacket—which later plays a subtle, yet key role in his characters’ development after he loses the safety net the jacket represents—and offering eruidite pontifications on any number of subjects, while constantly angling for a raise at the paper: “It’s not that I’m unhappy here. I’m fucking broke!” He’s mesmerizing, and to this day it’s one of my favorite performances of his. There’s always something attractive about seeing a future star on the cusp of greatness. That’s Goldblum in this film.
John Heard is no slouch here either, and this might be my favorite performance of his, period. As the paper’s most talented and veteran reporter Harry Lucas, Heard has hit a slump, which is killing his motivation and thus his writing. Micklin Silver estabalishes a palpable sense of spinning wheels in the film; Harry and his friends at the paper are stuck right in the midst of post-Vietnam 1970s-induced ennui, influenced by the decade’s growing dissolusionment with the ’60s, authority of any kind, and our supposed venerable institutions. The paper is under constant threat of being sold to a corporate overlord, and Harry and others can sense the end coming—the end of an era of freewheeling, incisive, and uncomromising investigative journalism. There’s a feeling among the cast of characters that their salad days are behind them, even though they’re still in their twenties, in some cases—as Harry dejectively utters, “We really shook things up, y’know … we didn’t change anything.” What’s left? Battles with The Man over the hard-hitting stories they feel are important, yet won’t bring in advertising to sustain the paper’s existence? Watching Heard as Harry navigate these issues throughout the film is a delight. He had real charisma and charm early in his career.
Betwen the Lines is one of the ultimate hangout films because it understands the fear of hanging around—a job, a city, a relationship—for too long. Maybe if you never lived with even one of those particular fears the movie might seem aimless to you. But if you have—I relate deeply to Harry’s self sabotage, which might be why my friend Ben calls this “the most you movie ever!”—it’s all too familiar and extremely comforting. What a movie. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.