Taking Off ★★★½

I’m not sure how fluent Milos Forman’s English was in 1971, but Taking Off, his first movie stateside, feels like the work of a non-English-language-native in the most productive way possible. As a comedy, the jokes are almost uniformly less about scripted dialogue than about inconclusive facial expressions, bizarre body language and, most of all, an accumulation of jarring visual juxtapositions. The movie begins in a bafflingly tabula rasa state, as some 30 or so minutes tick by without so much as an inkling of setting, characterization or anything resembling a story structure. Instead we’re offered a series of faces in extended telephoto close-ups against indistinct backgrounds (that they’re teens and adults only subliminally hints at the eventual thematic dichotomy at work). No, Forman’s way into his milieu isn’t with directing, per se, but with just watching closely and listening—not to words but to the waves of positive energy in a piece of hippy pop stringing together the seemingly (for all we know) disconnected glimpses. It’s an approach that’s hard to place: accidentally absorbing amateurism or a loosey-goosey riff on Passion of Joan of Arc’s demolition of screen space? In certain instances, Taking Off could have worked gangbusters as a pure silent, such as during a pursuit of a missing girl through an urban maze that employs basic Griffith intercutting with a deft sense of comic timing. Then again, what would a lengthy reefer-smoking how-to for a lecture hall full of uptight parents be without the hilarious fluctuation of vocal timbres amongst the nervous attendees and their spaced-out tutor? Taking Off’s a delightful curiosity, a film without a decisive mission that nonetheless takes its sweet time figuring out what that mission might be.