Larry Tyne (Buck Henry) is a middle-aged, white collar worker who wishes to give up smoking, and to do so is attending hypnosis sessions with a psychiatrist. He learns what actions to do should he feel the craving for a cigarette, and when he comes home he is put in a position of needing to use that stress-relieving fist clenching technique more than he expected: according to his wife Lynn (Lynn Carlin), their daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has run away from home. Now the couple must do their best to find her - or will they find themselves?
Well, it was the early seventies after all, and all that finding yourself, self-actualisation was very much the in thing. Taking Off was the first effort to be directed in America by cult Czech filmmaker Milos Forman - this was the one he made before he won adulation as the man who brought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to the big screen, and over the years many have responded to its quietly subversive humour. Working with three other writers, Forman makes this look improvised nevertheless, and takes a sympathetic but steely view of his characters.
A lot of the film's humour is the humour of embarrassment, where we cringe about what these people get up to whether they're the older or younger generation: Forman pins them both to his satirical canvas. Larry and Lynn find that by jumping into the world of their missing daughter their lives open up as never before, leading to excruciating scenes where they try drugs or allow their scruples to fall by the wayside, so much so that they end up misbehaving more than Jeannie. And Jeannie has not even really run away as we see her return and wonder where her parents have gone.
They're out looking for her, of course, and Taking Off can appear in places like a Mike Leigh drama set in the United States such is the similar take on the characters. We barely hear Jeannie speak until the end, and she is a distant presence in more ways than one, but when she does say something she seems spaced out and naive. She is still a paragon of virtue compared with her folks, who in their drive to keep Jeannie in check wind up involved with a society of parents with missing children, which Larry only finds out about because he accidentally tracks another missing teen and her grateful mother tells him about it.
The most famous sequence has Lynn and Larry attend a conference for these concerned mothers and fathers, where Ike Turner plays as the entertainment and some men are on the prowl for single women - a drunken Lynn is almost seduced, not that she realises it. At the gathering itself Vincent Schiavelli, as some kind of ambassador of youth, shows everyone present how to smoke marijauna, all the better to get in touch with the mindset of their offspring, leading to ridiculous bits with the parents lolling about stoned and gaining no insight whatsoever. An interesting aspect to the view of the youngsters is that Forman held an audition for a musical and filmed the results to be intercut with the story, so every so often an equally discomfitting shot of some hopeful making a fool of themselves will provide an equal opportunity microscope to examine these people under. Perhaps Forman is a little too cruel, but he does get to the heart of either age group missing each other's point by miles.