Loverboy

January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.

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Just One of the Guys

December 18, 2012

justoneofguysJust One of the Guys is an unsurprisingly limp teen romp that lifts the Tootsie formula and transfers it to high school. This time, the gender-switching involves a girl (Joyce Hyser) who wants desperately to be a journalist. We know she’s serious, because there’s a picture of Hemingway up there on her wall, next to Billy Idol.

A local newspaper annually offers an internship to a prize-winning high-schooler. Our girl’s story about hot-lunch nutrition doesn’t make the final cut, and her disappointment leads her to suspect that the decision-making was a sexist frame-up.

So—and you’ll need considerable willpower to swallow this—she enrolls (how? I ask you) at a rival high school as a boy, and enters the same journalism contest there. The hypothetical laughs ensue when this “boy” becomes attracted to another boy at the school—and becomes the object of desire for a healthy (but eventually confused) girl.

So, the basic laugh-getting situations are stolen outright from Tootsie. The big problem is, a good sex farce is supposed to be funny, and Just One of the Guys is absolutely deadly dull.

Everything is by rote. It’s one of those films in which juicy predicaments are set up—Hyser’s introduction to her new all-boy gym class, for instance—and then left quite undeveloped. Evidently, the situation is supposed to be funny enough in itself. Forget about any attempt at comic invention.

The characters are the usual parade of jocks, geeks, princesses, and trollops. The only intermittently funny stereotypes are two incredibly dorky losers who like to imagine they’re from another planet, and thus communicate with each other in metallic barks and blips. But even this idea is stolen from Sixteen Candles, where it was funnier.

The single well-written character is Hyser’s 15-year-old brother, who craves his first sexual encounter with ferocious single-mindedness. (Presumably, the writers felt some deep kinship with this character.) Unfortunately, the kid is so unimaginatively played by Billy Jacoby that all the comic force dribbles out of him.

Just One of the Guys is the debut feature film of director Lisa Gottlieb, whose short film Murder in the Mist attracted some attention a few years ago. Sad to say, Gottlieb proves here a rather depressing equality-of-the-sexes argument: It’s clear now that a woman can make a teen comedy that’s just as mindless and stupid as anything a man could make.

First published in the Herald, April 1985

The movie played endlessly on pay-cable for years thereafter, for reasons that will not be mysterious to anyone who’s seen it. I watched it again during that period, actually, and I think it’s better made than I gave it credit for—at least the skeleton of a screwball comedy is visible here, and Joyce Hyser has something. Billy Jacoby was the brother of Scott Jacoby, adolescent star of TV-movies in the early 1970s (Billy has been known as Billy Jayne since this time). Early outing for Sherilyn Fenn, too.


Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.


She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?


Heathers

September 28, 2012

The wicked new film Heathers plays a bit like Dr. Strangelove Goes to High School. In other words, the problems, fears, and anxieties of the teen years are handled here with a blackly comic edge that occasionally topples over into surrealism.

The fact that Heathers treats teen murder and suicide as appallingly funny has led it to be deemed controversial, although it must be so only among people who have no sense of humor. Heathers is unblinking and uproarious, and like any good black comedy, its exaggerations seem uncannily on target. (Has any nuclear-anxiety film been more accurate than the exaggerated Dr. Strangelove?)

Heathers focuses on the most powerful clique in school, three snotty girls named Heather, plus their newest member, Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers are ruthless and iron-willed, given to pulling unspeakably cruel pranks and delivering withering put-downs. (When an unpopular student tries unsuccessfully to kill herself after a rash of apparent suicides strikes the school, a Heather shrugs: “Just another example of a geek imitating the popular people and failing miserably.”)

Soon Veronica chafes at the horror of the Heathers, especially after she meets an anti-social rebel named J.D. (Christian Slater) who talks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. They team up to take revenge on the Heathers, a revenge that quickly turns to murder.

Like many black comedies, Heathers has some problems resolving itself. But along the way it bristles with savage invention: Veronica and J.D. arguing over whether to included the word “myriad” in an invented suicide note for one of their victims; a Heather absent-mindedly moussing her hair with holy water at a funeral; two high school studs in their open coffins with their football helmets on.

Along with another winning performance by Winona Ryder (the morbidly inclined daughter in Beetlejuice), Heathers introduces two first-timers behind the camera: director Michael Lehmann, whose dead-on approach perfectly suits the wild happenings, and screenwriter Daniel Waters, author of some of the most quotable dialogue of the year.

I interviewed Waters when he was in Seattle for the film’s debut at the Seattle International Film Festival. Waters is a 26-year-old who, upon arriving in Hollywood, worked at a video store for a year and a half while writing Heathers, his first attempt at a feature script.

“My naivete paid off,” he said, “I didn’t write something to be commercial, and it sold.” Independent studio New World made the film, but during filming, Waters said, “there was great suspense over whether New World would find out what we were making, and come and close down the set.”

New World did balk at the movie’s original ending, in which the heroine blows herself up and attends “A prom in heaven, with all the dead characters coming back to life.”

Incidentally, Waters swears that Heathers is not the revenge of someone who hated his own school. “It weirds a lot of people out,” he said, “but I liked high school.”

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

Twenty years later Waters returned to the Seattle International Film Festival with his movie Sex & Death 101, and I interviewed him again. His manner was about the same, I am glad to report. Heathers turned into kind of a classic, which it deserves.


Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

August 23, 2012

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a little like the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. You know the thing is aimed primarily at 11-year-olds, and the characters are all idiotic, but jokes keep whizzing past that are neither idiotic nor pre-adolescent.

In fact , this movie is pretty funny. But where “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was sly, Bill & Ted is goofy. It makes certain demands on the viewer; you’d better have a high tolerance for cretinous dialogue and vacant, glassy-eyed stares.

Bill and Ted (played with unfailing vacuousness and in perfect Valley-speak by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are two high-schoolers who are flunking out of history class. When the teacher asks who Joan of Arc was, they’re stumped: “Noah’s wife?” And they wonder whether Marco Polo refers to a watersport.

For some reason, these two dorks are chosen by an emissary (George Carlin) from the 27th century, who lends them a time machine in the form of a telephone booth. With this, they’re able to travel around through the centuries, pick up interesting historical figures, and come back in time to present a really bodacious final report, and thus avert the most dreaded F.

That’s the concept. And there aren’t many complications along the way. The movie, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and briskly directed by Stephen Herek, touches down in a variety of historical locales but never stays long enough for anything to get stale. From the wild West, the boys take Billy the Kid; from ancient Greece, Socrates (“a most bodacious philosopher”). They grab Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Sigmund Freud (who is greeted in the Vienna of 1900 with a friendly, “How’s it goin’, Frood-dude?”).

There’s also room for some low comedy when the time travelers return to the presnt and deposit the great figures in a shopping mall. Billy the Kid and Socrates try to put the make on a couple of babes (this doesn’t sound like the Socratic method), but Freud ruins things by showing up at the wrong moment, corndog in hand (though sometimes a corndog is just a corndog). “Way to go, egghead,” Billy snarls.

The movie’s characters are so moronic they become strangely endearing after a while, and it’s all over before it wears out its welcome. In short, most bodacious.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

A genuinely funny movie. I guess I couldn’t figure out a way to make the duo’s pronunciation of “Socrates” understandable, which is a shame. And just a few days ago, Reeves announced that he’d signed on for a new sequel, which might be a good idea if only to alter the memory of the DOA Bogus Journey.


The Rachel Papers

August 13, 2012

We have a new English film about a young man plotting to get a girl while, Alfie-style, he’s receiving a moral education. No, this isn’t Getting It Right. That film came out at least three months ago. This is another English film about a young man plotting, etc. This one’s called The Rachel Papers.

Based on a 1973 novel by Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers has a 19-year-old hero, a cocky Londoner named Charles, who taps all of his romantic knowledge into a computer, where his reservoir of facts and, ah, figures will help him in his love life. Except that his life doesn’t have much love in it; plenty of action, but not much love.

Then he meets Rachel, a knockout who seems to him the ultimate conquest. So Charles the Conqueror sets out to win her, using all of his data base methods. In this, writer-director Damian Harris (the son of actor Richard Harris), works a conventional line. Charles, like Alfie, regularly turns from a scene to address the audience in conspiratorial tones.

Much of this works. The most amusing sequence comes after Charles gets the girl, and she spends a couple of weeks at his place. Protracted proximity brings sexual bliss, but also a strong dose of reality. There’s a funny moment when Rachel sits in Charles’ bedroom, singing tunelessly to a song on the radio, and Charles slowly looks up from his book to register his irritation. She’s human after all.

The film’s problem, at least in terms of finding a sympathetic audience, is that we’re enlisted in Charles’ cause all the way through the film, particularly through his direct entreaties to the audience. But he’s a swine. He receives his comeuppance near the end and learns his lesson, but some may have a hard time sympathizing with him until then. Especially women. The Rachel Papers takes a decidedly male point of view.

Ione Skye, who also played the object of desire in the wonderful Say Anything…, is Rachel, and James Spader, currently in sensational form in sex, lies, and videotape, takes a supporting role as her unctuous boyfriend. The film is carried by Dexter Fletcher, who brings a certain reptilian energy to Charles. He’s also a dead ringer for the young Mick Jagger. If anyone’s preparing the Rolling Stones story, your lead actor is right here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

I haven’t read the Amis novel, but the movie feels like the same thing as usual. Dexter Fletcher’s been busy since this movie, mostly as a character actor. Getting It Right, by the way, was a film by Randal Kleiser.