Sixteen Candles

May 9, 2011

John Hughes is a name that appeared on what seemed to be about half of 1983’s screenplays, including National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, and Nate and Hayes. It looks now as though Hughes, a former staffer for National Lampoon magazine, was acting as something of a script doctor for comedies.

Which may be how he got so quickly in position to direct his first film. It’s called Sixteen Candles, and it’s about a girl’s disastrous 16th birthday, which occurs the day before her older sister’s marriage. This means, of course, that the biggest birthday of her life is absolutely forgotten, much to her despair.

Sixteen Candles—which, despite the 1950s song title, is set in the present day—is sophomoric, often tasteless, and frequently obvious. It’s also shamelessly funny. Hughes doesn’t bring anything new to the oft-told growing-up story; the film has none of the grace of American Graffiti, and none of the magical humor of Gregory’s Girl.

What it has is Hughes’ hipness, his deftness with one-liners, and an unerring sense for caricature. Much of the film exists on the level of caricature, admittedly; but it’s so sharply (if cruelly) carried off, you can’t help but laugh. I couldn’t, anyway.

Although Hughes’ prime purpose here is to make us laugh, there’s a suggestion that he’s capable of more. The casting of the fine Molly Ringwald as the high school heroine, Samantha, gives the movie an emotional touchstone. Ringwald is a very open actress, and her presence keeps the film honest. The casting of Paul Dooley as her father helps with this; he’s always good.

As good as Ringwald is, this movie is stolen lock, stock, and barrel by a wispy corn stalk with blond hair named Anthony Michael Hall. He plays Ted, a gregarious freshman who digs Samantha (she’s a sophomore, so she won’t give him a second glance). Hall is all drumming fingers, bony elbows, and nervous virginal energy. He’s anxious to get himself deflowered, and decides that Samantha may be able to help him out.

As the movie unfolds, you almost get the idea that Hughes suddenly realized how funny Hall was, and beefed up his part, because the film starts drifting away from Samantha’s story. Structurally, this weakens the film, but it certainly makes it funnier. Hall has comic timing like nobody’s business, and it’s no surprise he’s already signed up to star in Hughes’ next two movies.

Hughes makes a number of missteps. A glaring problem is his heavy-handed use of familiar musical themes, which pop up for a cheap laugh in the midst of scenes. (I liked the placing of the theme from “Peter Gunn,” though. Listen for it.)

Sixteen Candles is ultimately inconsequential, but, despite its unevenness, I liked it. Hughes may yet get up the nerve to discard easy gags in favor of a fuller, more challenging comedy. But if he doesn’t, and his movies are as breezy and funny as this one, it’ll be okay by me.

First published in the Herald, May 5, 1984

It sounds as though I’m trying to talk myself out of how much I enjoyed this movie, but I enjoyed it a whole bunch. Now that Hughes has been enshrined as the Young Adult Voice of the mid-80s, it’s easy to forget that this movie sort of came out of nowhere and took people by surprise. Anthony Michael Hall’s performance is still a classic. I remember hearing that Stanley Kubrick had cast Hall in the lead of Full Metal Jacket based on this picture, which obviously didn’t ultimately happen. The Hall of Sixteen Candles (maybe not the Hall of subsequent projects) would have been kind of amazing in the Kubrick film, with a kind of comic energy that Matthew Modine didn’t have. In any case, What a Feeling! is overdue for some Hughesiana, so here we go.