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.

Heavenly Bodies

June 3, 2011

Canada’s official entry in the Flashdance sweepstakes is here: Heavenly Bodies, a brainless clone of the maddeningly popular dance film. This one’s set in Toronto (although the city is never named), and it may be even more repulsive than the original.

It’s about some 9-to-5 secretaries who pool their money and rent a dance studio, which opens as an aerobics club with the name Heavenly Bodies. This of course is an excuse for plenty of shots of nubile women in tights and torn T-shirts.

Interestingly enough, none of the women pictured here seem to need exercise classes; they’re all skeletons with a smattering of flesh. But no matter. Half the film is spent watching dozens of gals shake their groove things and drench themselves in sweat—and for all that, the film is oddly sexless.

Anyway, our heroine, played by a Jennifer Beals lookalike named Cynthia Dale, is the main instructor down at Heavenly Bodies. She decides to audition for a TV workout instruction show, and wins the main spot; in so doing, she incurs the wrath of an aerobics instructor from a competing studio (Laura Henry).

Then Cynthia snares the attentions of her rival’s big-bucks boyfriend (Walter George Alton), who also manages that competing studio.

Listen, if I learned anything from this film, it’s this: Hell hath no fury like an aerobics instructor scorned. The rival arranges for poor Cynthia to lose the lease on her studio. This makes Cynthia upset—you can tell, because she sticks out her lower lip and gets a determined look in her dimple.

Cynthia challenges the rival studio to a winner-take-all contest: They’ll compete in a marathon workout session, and whoever lasts the longest wins the Heavenly Bodies building.

Just in case I haven’t made that clear enough, let me repeat: Opposing teams of workout fanatics will face each other and try to out-exercise the other guys until they all drop. If that sounds like the ingredients for one of the most ludicrous sequences ever put on film, you’re right. The last 20 minutes of this movie are devoted to a bunch of people flopping their limbs about to blaring electronically programmed music, as they expire one by one.

That’s about as dynamic as the action gets. Every once in a while, Cynthia breaks out in a “dance” and works off her frustrations. It’s the worst kind of Flashdance watered-down modern dance, stretched out to fit the length of an MTV video.

The acting is of the sort where the inexperienced players (and that’s just about everybody) over-enunciate all their lines; you can almost hear the dialogue coach telling them, “Pronounce your Ts! Pronounce your Ts!”

The only moment of truth occurs when the bad girl marvels at our heroine’s forthrightness in proposing the competition: “You’re about as dumb as you look, aren’t you?” To which the audience replies: “Well…maybe not quite that dumb.”

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1985

I never thought I would experience this film again, but such are the glories of the online age: the movie’s been posted on YouTube, and the disbelief can be experienced here. During the very, very long opening montage, the heroine played by Cynthia Dale (her career still going strong, by the way) gazes at a poster of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, possibly the most direct referential linkage in a film since Belmondo looked at the still of Bogart in Breathless.