Hollywood's sometimes-sour version of the American dream

Hollywood never tires of exploring the American dream, especially around the holiday season. This year is no exception, though the dream seems to have soured a bit, judging from such current releases as Four Friends and Pennies From Heaven. 'Four Friends'

Despite its title, ''Four Friends'' is mostly the story of one young man, a Yugoslav by birth, who immigrates to the United States - or America, as he invariably calls it - at age 4. Growing up with three close chums in the Midwest , and later traveling to the East, he experiences the frivolous '50s and psychedelic '60s at firsthand, taking us on a guided tour of the best and worst his adopted country has to offer .

It's quite a journey, ranging in mood from lyrical to lurid, with a degree of visible sex and vulgar language to account for its R rating. Though the details are occasionally harrowing, the movie seems as determined as its hero to finish the trip with bright eyes and an optimistic outlook. No matter how gloomy the story becomes, no matter how much confusion momentarily reigns, everyone bounces back for another shot at the good life that must be just around the corner.

In a sense, ''Four Friends'' is a darker version of ''Breaking Away'' - also written by Steve Tesich - without the sports and family details, and populated with less naive characters. Camaraderie is still the most important trait of its young heroes, and life still seems like a long wrestling match with parents who don't quite understand their peculiar progeny.

But here the similarities end. The main characters of ''Four Friends'' are budding bohemians, not the rural innocents of ''Breaking Away,'' and they pass through their Midwestern world with dreams of following Isadora Duncan into some never-never land of artistic bliss. Naturally, this never happens. The most they find is ''flower power,'' which turns out to be a sorry substitute even for their life in East Chicago, Ind. Trying a different direction, the hero tries love among the millionaires, which precipitates the biggest tragedy (and the most audaciously dramatic scene) in the movie.

Still, no setback is too much for resilient youth, in the eyes of screenwriter Tesich and director Arthur Penn. The end of the film, like the beginning, is a celebration of the good and normal and true, regardless of how mundane those elusive qualities may seem.

It's unfortunate that ''Four Friends'' isn't more original in unfolding its tale. The quartet of major characters (three young men and the young woman they love) are stock figures from a million other movies, and many of their adventures are equally familiar, though spiced with sporadic surprises and occasional raunchy details. The screenplay is inconsistently written: Some scenes ring strong and true, while others are flat and unconvincing, and a few important elements - the hero's relations with his father, for example - are too sketchy to be thoroughly effective.

The performances range from very good (Craig Wasson as the hero) to very ordinary. As the woman of the story, Jodi Thelen is at least unusual, a sort of cross between Grace Slick and Georgia Engel. The music is by Elizabeth Swados, who captures the sound of the '50s and '60s less vividly than we might have expected. Arthur Penn, long fascinated with the dark side of the American mystique - from ''Bonnie and Clyde'' on - has assembled all these pieces into a picture puzzle that takes commendable risks, but doesn't quite compel full understanding and belief. 'Pennies From Heaven''

Pennies From Heaven is the riskiest commercial film of the year, and maybe the past 10 years. Directed by Herbert Ross, a capable and intelligent craftsman , it probes the dim underside of the sparkling '30s musicals that made movies an integral part of the American dream. What it finds there is not very pleasant - and is not redeemed by gala explosions of classical Hollywood artistry to lighten the excursion.

The filmmakers have done a rare thing: Taking a dialectical view of the '30s, they play off harsh realities - depression, poverty, violence - against the fabulous escapism that was so popular on movie screens of the period. In the midst of some sad or even squalid scene, the characters suddenly break into song and dance, expressing their unspoken thoughts or hopes or fantasies. Unlike the usual style of '30s movies themselves, however, sordid actuality always returns as strong as ever, continuing the film's dialogue between illusion and reality.

It could have been a fascinating exploration, perhaps a profound one, exposing the complex interrelations among life and entertainment and art, and accomplishing this in terms of the movie medium itself. But this never happens. For one thing, there is a split as wide as a Panavision screen between the two halves of the dialectic. The ''reality'' scenes are even nastier than they have to be, complete with occasional four-letter language and a bit of miserably perverse sex, while the ''illusion'' scenes are more like glossy interruptions than ironic commentaries.

Even when considered apart, the twin elements of the movie aren't satisfactory. The depression drama is undermined by lumpy directing and by a flat performance from Steve Martin, who never approaches the dramatic eloquence he obviously has in mind.

The musical numbers are fabulous, all right, with their rich visuals and nostalgic music. But the filmmakers pay a heavy price for their borrowings: When the performers ''lip-synch'' to original soundtracks, it creates a campy atmosphere that gnaws away the credibility of the occasion. It might have been stimulating to watch Steve Martin re-create a classic song-and-dance number on his own terms, but it's just silly to hear a disconnected performer's voice (of the opposite sex, as likely as not) while he mugs into the camera. Dialectics are one thing. Head-on collisions are quite another.

The makers of ''Pennies From Heaven'' - including Dennis Potter, who wrote the screenplay based on his six-part BBC series - deserve enormous credit for their courage in tackling such an unconventional and ambitious project in the first place. With a more consistent visual scheme and a more fully integrated scenario, not to mention a stronger and deeper cast, it might have been the popular and avant-garde success it sets out to be, passing such earlier and somewhat similar efforts as Martin Scorsese's ''New York, New York'' and Peter Bogdanovich's ''At Long Last Love.'' Good intentions and bold intentions, though , are never enough. ''Pennies From Heaven'' is unique, but it's a failure, too.

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