What humorless little Calvinists are the hippie college types who inhabit writer/director Bobby Roth’s Berkeley. They are youths in the American 1960s, and the received cinematic iconography of the period decrees that, in addition to smoking dope and dropping acid, everyone must shed their clothes and middle-class inhibitions at nine-minute intervals. But despite all the very out-of-period health-club bodies on display, these children of the revolution are all so joyless and marionette-like in their doings they seem fit only for New Left sloganeering and asking embarrassing Big Questions like “Do you think we can make a difference?” or “Do you think we ever find ourselves?” Urgh.
Perhaps college sophomores should be allowed to be sophomoric. But Roth’s creations are so self-serious, they don’t just hail Marx and Lenin when they take to the streets for an anemically staged student strike on a Berkeley campus that looks suspiciously like UCLA. They also whisper dialectically materialistic sweet nothings as they shed their clothes for lovemaking. Roth means this to demonstrate how alive the era was with new ideas, but the stale received wisdom of the ideology and the ludicrous sight of healthy young people pausing before ravishing each other to give CliffsNotes summations of Das Kapital are enough to make a viewer nostalgic for Ozzie, Harriet and the missionary position.
Allegorically named protagonist Ben Sweet (played by the director’s son Nick Roth) is an aimless Jewish kid fresh out of high school whose rug-merchant father (a bemused Henry Winkler) may be the only man in California clueless enough to think he can send his son to Berkeley the year after the Summer of Love and get something other than a member of the Weather Underground back in return. Ben’s trajectory from nebbish to leftist fellow traveler is indicated by (what else?) lengthening locks and a fresh crop of facial hair—he starts off looking like a young Richard Benjamin and morphs into Cat Stevens before our very eyes. Obviously, world-shaking transformations are at work.
For reasons unexplained (and unexplored), Ben is a killer blues guitarist in the Hendrix vain—but one who has neither played in a band before nor smoked dope, lest the naif’s progress the script requires of him be compromised by premature worldliness. Apparently the era is so magical it allows unknown white kids from the suburbs to become instantaneous guitar gods, because Ben’s also allegorically named childhood pal Henry Wolf (Jake Newton) turns out to be at least his equal on the fret-board. This musical subplot is mostly an excuse to get radical pop genius Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave into the movie, where he is a welcome and understated presence, though with his shaved head and weary 40-something eyes, he looks about as much of this time and place as a Mohawk-ed Sid Vicious might.
There are soap opera plot turns, including a police shooting; the (off-screen) burning of the Bank of America; Ben’s involvement with the Berkeley Dean’s predatory daughter (Sarah Carter); and an unexpected pregnancy for Sadie (a winning Laura Jordan), the girlfriend Henry and Ben both share. Though the pacing is laggard, the melodramatic twists keep Berkeley lurching along like a psychedelic Peyton Place—or rather a Peyton Place that would be psychedelic if it could afford an art director.
A standard response by boomers to the general impatience of subsequent generations for self-congratulatory paeans to the 1960s is that “you should have been there.” Fair enough. But here we have an unconvincing film made by a man who actually did go to that college during the time depicted, and who is therefore passing off a meandering assemblage of shopworn clichés as an eyewitness account. Berkeley proves there’s a big difference between having been there and paying attention while you were. —
Cast: Nick Roth, Laura Jordan, Henry Winkler, Sarah Carter and Tom Morello
Director/Screenwriter: Bobby Roth
Producers: Jeffrey White and Bobby Roth
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: October 12, 2007 LA