July 6, 2011

The collaborators who brought us Urban Cowboy in 1980 have gotten together again. This time, the popular-culture trend they’ve harpooned is the mania for physical fitness—but more precisely, the mania for health clubs, and the ways these clubs have become the singles bars of the 1980s.

Director James Bridges, star John Travolta, and writer Aaron Latham (who based his script on his Rolling Stone story “Looking for Mr. Goodbody”) have whipped up Perfect, a morality fable in which Travolta, as a Rolling Stone reporter, learns certain lessons about journalistic accountability.

He journeys to Los Angeles to get the scoop on a health club, where he meets a publicity-shy aerobics instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) with whom he falls quickly into bed. She’s been burned by an insensitive news story before, so she doesn’t have much trust in him. The film is about the ways in which a trust is worked out between them.

In the process, Perfect trots out the usual wisdoms about what a reporter is willing to do to get a story, what the reporter’s responsibilities are to the people he’s interviewed, etc. These themes are so stale—and Bridges and Latham’s treatment of them so unimaginative—that the prominence they’re given is embarrassing.

Since journalistic morality is the main theme of the movie, the health-club angle turns out to be more of a backdrop than the main focus. It’s milked for all it’s worth, though, as there are many scenes of sweaty bodies aerobicizing.

But it does provide a somewhat disturbing context: At one point Curtis, incensed at Travolta’s article, which suggests that there may be something pathetic in the way people are searching for physical perfection, shouts at him, “What’s the matter with trying to be perfect?” He’s got no comeback, and the film mutely endorses what she’s said.

Thus the film starts to steer clear of an ironical view of the health clubs, instead suggesting they may be the last bastion of self-improvement. There may be some truth in that, but surely there are people for whom the perfecting of the body is a sad and hollow exercise. Perfect prefers to ignore that; even the unhappy woman played by Laraine Newman, who seeks to physically rebuild herself from top to bottom, apparently has the film’s blessing.

The slings and arrows are saved for the journalists, including the Rolling Stone publisher (played, oddly enough, by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner) and photographer (Anne DeSalvo). Aside from its loaded-deck brand of social concern, Perfect is a slick entertainment. Travolta is okay after the humiliations of Staying Alive and Two of a Kind, and Curtis displays her usual brand of gravity and directness.

But the film is too long and the pace is droopy. Perfect is not going to set the Flashdance crowd on fire, even if it does have an awesomely high leotard quotient.

First published in the Herald, June 8, 1985

I am haunted by the fact that IMDb lists a 128-minute version of this film for Canadian release, 13 minutes longer than the official release. (Perhaps it was a response to the demand created by Canada’s own aerobics opus, Heavenly Bodies.) The endless workout scenes in this movie were the source of much hilarity at the time, especially in conjunction with the movie’s overall seriousness of purpose. I seem to recall that Rolling Stone published Travolta’s production diary, which had some very peculiar reflections on making the film and his proximity to Jamie Lee Curtis. James Bridges completed only one more feature, the non-starting adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City; his movies are sincere.