`Tucker' - a celebration of ingenuity

`TUCKER: The Man and His Dream'' is a grand title for a grand movie - a bouncy ride through an overlooked byway of the American past that's as revealing as it is entertaining. A fictionalized drama that grew out of real events, Francis Ford Coppola's film tells the story of Preston Tucker, an inventor and entrepreneur - and yes, a dreamer - who designed a new automobile in the 1940s.

The car was fast and flashy, but it was also safety-minded in a way no car had ever been. Called the Tucker Torpedo, it boasted seat belts, a pop-out windshield made of shatterproof glass, a padded dash, a movable headlight in the center of the front grill, and other innovations, many of which are now commonplace. And all this for less than $2,500.

In Coppola's tale, Tucker clearly loves the machine, and the public seems eager to love it just as much. Early advertisements build a large and enthusiastic following that can't wait to get its hands on the first Torpedoes to roll out of Tucker's plant.

All bodes well for him and his affectionate family, except for one factor that casts a dark shadow on the situation: the greed and envy of the entrenched Detroit automakers. They fear Tucker's competition and, just as passionately, resent the gleeful energy he shows in denouncing their standardized - and often dangerous - products. With a powerful senator in their pocket, they launch a campaign to bury Tucker and his dream.

You know from the start that ``Tucker'' won't have a happy ending, or we'd all be driving Tucker Torpedoes right now. In both fact and film, only 50 automobiles emerge from Tucker's factory. In the film version, reactionary forces succeed in closing it down - for reasons that can't stem from the car's quality, since 46 of those Tuckers are said to be roadworthy even today.

Given the downbeat finale which is built into the story, ``Tucker'' could easily have been a gloomy picture, full of cynicism about the American way of business. But the filmmakers have chosen a very different route, turning Tucker's story into a cheerful celebration of Yankee know-how and better-mousetrap ingenuity.

This doesn't mean it's a rose-colored takeoff on Tucker's career and the obstacles he faced: The screenplay, by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler, is liberally peppered with social criticism and a healthy skepticism about political practices. Coppola is so charged up about Tucker's idealistic personality, however, that he simply can't let the grumpy view predominate in his movie. The driving power of Coppola's enthusiasm tempers criticism and skepticism with unfailing humor and compassion.

``Tucker'' is easily Coppola's best movie since ``The Conversation'' and the glory of his ``Godfather'' days, which ended about 15 years ago.

Yet the film is not a one-person accomplishment. Hearty praise goes also to the screenwriters, to executive producer George Lucas, to the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, to production designer Dean Tavoularis, and to composer Joe Jackson, who wrote the score.

And to the cast. Jeff Bridges, perhaps the most likable leading man in Hollywood today, effortlessly captures the wide range of Tucker's personality, which is by turns breezily charming and urgently energetic.

Martin Landau and Frederic Forrest give commendably transparent performances as, respectively, our hero's partner and helper. And the rest of the performers support them admirably, from Joan Allen and Elias Koteas to Christian Slater and Mako.

Special honors go to Lloyd Bridges, as the nasty Washington politician, and Dean Stockwell, whose brief but brilliant turn as Howard Hughes cements his position as the most inventive character actor on the current scene.

``Tucker'' has problems, including jokes that fall flat and a penchant for four-letter language that will nudge it out of the family-viewing category for many moviegoers. I also hoped for more of a follow-through on the film's ``Citizen Kane''-style structure, which frames the action (a heroic biography like ``Kane'' itself) with a film-within-the-film. After a strong beginning, the filmmakers do little with this device.

These shortcomings aside, though, a cruise in a real Tucker Torpedo couldn't be more smooth, cozy, and invigorating than this smartly crafted motion-picture joyride. It's the best movie we've seen all summer.

A PG rating reflects its occasional vulgar language.

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