18 Again!

July 11, 2012

It’s happened again. The brain switchers are back. If you quivered at Like Father, Like Son, if you palpitated at Vice Versa, chances are you’ll be tingly all over at 18 Again! Once more, two people switch personalities—that is, they switch bodies—well, you know what I mean. You’ve seen it enough times.

If the title sounds familiar, it may be because George Burns, all 90something of him, has been singing the song “I Wish I Were 18 Again” for years. Someone had the idea to spin a movie out of the tune, and the film 18 Again! was born. Burns plays a wealthy, wisecracking, skirt-chasing tycoon; due to a strange mystical occurrence (did the Harmonic Convergence trigger this rash of brain switchings?), he trades places with his nerdy, withdrawn 18-year-old grandson (Charlie Schlatter).

As it turns out, this means that Burns isn’t in the movie all that much. Instead, we watch Schlatter playing a college kid with all the vinegar and drollness of the elder man. This provides some modestly amusing sequences, as the young nerd metamorphoses into a BMOC. He settles comfortably into the new role, though he startles his father (Tony Roberts) by lighting up a cigar and downing some cognac after dinner one night.

The almost-unknown Schlatter deftly handles the duties of impersonating a teenage Burns. He walks around campus in bow tie and pinstripes, and cozies up to Burns’ old pal (Red Buttons) to share golfing and gambling jokes. It’s a little weird watching an 18-year-old kid spitting out one-liners like an aging Jewish comic at a Catskills resort, but Schlatter makes it work.

Burns spends most of the movie comatose (literally, in the storyline), so the kid’s personality remains moribund while Schlatter frolics. But Burns is crisp in the opening and closing scenes, scuttling around introducing his statuesque vixen friend (Anita Morris, in her umpteenth statuesque vixen role) as “My companion, playmate, and confidante,” and doing everything but wink. Most of his dialogue is along the lines of his reply to a query about his taste for younger women: “I’d go out with women my age. But there are no women my age.”

The director, Paul Flaherty, does an effective job of keeping things simple and clear. Given a more ambitious screenplay, he might concoct a memorable comedy. In this outing, he keeps faith with Burns’ advice to his shy grandson on the technique of talking to women: “It’s not the lines, it’s the delivery.” That, of course, has been George Burns’ governing method through many decades of show business. He still makes it work.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

The next movie directed by Paul Flaherty (brother of Joe and longtime SCTV writer) was Who’s Harry Crumb?, which was not memorable. This can’t be my only reference in these writings to the 1980s phenomenon known as the Harmonic Convergence, but I haven’t uncovered any others yet.

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Can’t Buy Me Love

June 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Love is a tired high-school comedy, taking off from yet another big concept: This time, a nerd wants popularity so desperately that he buys the friendship of the queenly cheerleader. In with the in crowd, by association.

Our young hero (Patrick Dempsey) is weary of his endless hours of lawn-mowing, of spending every Saturday night playing poker with his geeky friends. He yearns to be accepted. So, by a rather farfetched invention, he takes the money he’d saved for an expensive telescope and applies it toward his transfiguration.

The cheerleader (Amanda Peterson) needs the money to replace her mother’s ruined dress. So she strikes a deal. She’ll give the nerd a fashion makeover, walk down the halls with him, even have lunch with him. But only partial hand-holding. And no smooches.

The experiment is a success, if gaining the grunting appreciation of the school Neanderthals is a measure of success. Of course, there is a lesson about popularity and friendship and humility in all of this, which the ex-nerd will dutifully learn. And, there’s the entirely expected attachment that springs up between the members of this financial transaction.

This premise is so clearly contrived to engineer predictable plot complication that probably nobody could have made it come alive. To give some credit, director Steve Rash does try. Rash scored nicely with The Buddy Holly Story in 1977, though he hasn’t worked much in feature films since.

Rash strains to find some tender romantic moments in first-time screenwriter Michael Swerdlick’s story, but they come off as pretty cornball. And the principal actors don’t have the star quality to carry the idea into memorable—or even reasonably diverting—territory, though Amanda Peterson grows on you.

Finally, there’s a feeble attempt to add buoyancy by splicing the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” on to the credits and the very title. (The movie was originally called Boy Rents Girl.) If the Beatles are going to sue Nike over the use of “Revolution” for those sneaker ads, they ought to do the same here. As a matter of fact, there’s more cinematic invention in those 30-second Nike spots that in this entire movie.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

This was part of an inexplicable Patrick Dempsey moment (the first Patrick Dempsey moment, that is), when filmmakers became convinced he was the second coming of Jack Lemmon, or Matthew Broderick, or something. I think the film is worse than I make it sound here.


The Sure Thing

May 9, 2012

Don’t believe the ads. If you do, you’ll think The Sure Thing is just like every other teen comedy that ever raunched its way onto movie screens—but it’s in a league by itself. If anything, it’s a collegiate update of the classic screwball comedies of Hollywood yesteryear.

Like those comedies, the situation is absolutely basic: It’s grounded in the attraction of opposites. We’ve got a likable, sports-minded, non-intellectual guy (John Cusack), and a bright, organized, somewhat repressed girl (Daphne Zuniga), who are freshmen at a New England university.

Right off the bat, she has reason to dislike him after he makes a disastrous pass at her (his rehearsed opening line is, “Did you know that Nietzsche died of syphilis?”). Besides, she has a boyfriend in Los Angeles (they’re going to be lawyers) whom she plans to visit during Christmas break.

As it happens, Cusack has a friend in Los Angeles, too, one who has promised to set up a “sure thing”—a gorgeous and willing one-night stand—for Cusack when he visits during Christmas. Fate, of course, has other plans for our two protagonists. They wind up answering the same bulletin-board ad for a ride west, and are stuck with each other for the duration.

This journey is delightful. We know perfectly well these two are going to fall for each other, and the fun is in watching the process, with its many setbacks. Those begin with their chauffeurs, a horribly cheerful couple who like to sing show tunes while driving. Cusack and Zuniga last through Ohio or so with these two; then they start hitching.

The thing that lifts all this above the average road-trip movie is the beautiful feeling for being on the road—the many oddball trading posts and motels, the weird characters who turn up, the junk food consumed as a staple along the way. It’s all just as sweet-natured as can be.

Clearly, the credit for this goes to the director, Rob Reiner. Yes, that’s the same Rob Reiner who played Meathead on “All in the Family” for so many years. His only previous directorial outing was This Is Spinal Tap, that mad pseudodocumentary. As funny as that was, nothing in it prepares you for the unerringly light comic touch present here. This guy is going to be a good director.

There’s another TV name with a connection: actor Henry Winkler, who is listed as executive producer (but does not appear in the film). It was probably Winkler who had the good sense to hire Reiner—although it must have been something of a gamble.

It was presumably Reiner who chose the leads, and they’re winners. Cusack is a fresh-faced kid capable of wild comic invention, able to slip into different voices at will (he turns into a frothing maniac when trying to scare a famer who’s gotten too friendly with Zuniga). Zuniga has a great sidelong glance that communicates both her mistrust of Cusack’s aggressively wacko ways and a growing attraction to him.

In comparison, when Cusack’s sure thing (Nicolette Sheridan) shows up, she is gorgeous, tan, blond, and absolutely boring. By that time, we know where the heart of the film lies, and it’s not with the perfect fantasy figure—even if that’s what the ads lead you to think.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Although what happened was, Reiner seemed to decline in originality and interest from about this point onward. This film, which I haven’t seen since the Eighties, may be the equivalent of comforting snack food on the road, but that’s still something. Cusack did all right for himself after this.


Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?


Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise

January 12, 2012

The original Revenge of the Nerds took a very funny title and a tried-and-true comic formula (vengeance) and became the surprise hit of the summer of 1984. It had its genuinely mirthful moments, in large part because the two head nerds were played with some inspiration by Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards.

A sequel was inevitable, and so was the return to formula. In Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, once again the geeks are abused and tormented, until they must slip their pocket protectors in place and turn the tables on the evil jocks at the Alpha Beta fraternity. In this session, Carradine is back as the grandmaster nerd, leading his nearsighted brethren. Edwards, however, has enjoyed a healthy career upswing and is less nerdy now. Thus he appears in just a couple of scenes (a broken leg explains his absence from the action).

As the subtitle suggests, our heroes are on vacation in Fort Lauderdale for a convention of fraternities. Things are bleak from the outset, however. The mean hotel manager (Ed Lauter) announces: “I don’t want nerds in my hotel!” So the pencil-necked geeks end up in a fleabag, where there are no computers to repair or cute girls to repulse.

The movie ping-pongs between the humiliations of the nerds and their vengeful plotting. There are a few funny scenes, especially the nerds’ rap party, where they mutate into something like the Beastie Nerds; and a sequence that has Edwards, dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi, appearing to a dispirited Carradine in a dream. His sage advice? “Stop acting like a wienie!”

But for the most part, Nerds II remains only slightly superior to your average teen gross-out movie (director Joe Roth also produced the similar Bachelor Party). Many of the good gags are repeats from the first film, such as the overuse of Carradine’s donkey laugh. There’s a heavy emphasis on bodily-function jokes, nose-picking, and bikini jiggle.

The most disgusting nerd, Booger (Curtis Armstrong, now a regular on TV’s “Moonlighting”), is back with his usual habits. Characteristic of his behavior, and the movie’s high point of blecch, is a belching duel he has with an inexplicable Asian man (James Hong). Nerdhood, reassuringly, know no ethnic boundaries.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Beyond the fond recollection that Orson Welles recorded the voiceover for the first Nerds movie, I got nothing. It seems Anthony Edwards deserves credit for being a good sport.


Hiding Out

January 6, 2012

The high-concept boys must’ve had a field day with the nutty premise of Hiding Out. In this one, Jon Cryer plays a young hotshot Wall Street stockbroker whose life goes kablooie when a mobster client decides to eliminate some incriminating evidence. Unfortunately, Cryer and his fellow brokers are the evidence.

So for his own protection, Cryer is taken into seclusion as a government witness. Then the FBI guys guarding him turn out to be less than perfect, and Cryer has to flee for his life, on his own. His escape leads him to a small town where his adolescent cousin provides some safe harbor.

Cryer figures the best way to stay alive is to adopt a new identity, so, and this is where we finally arrive at the concept, he dyes his hair, takes off his glasses, and enrolls in his cousin’s high school. The broker goes back for a refresher in senior economics.

That’s your premise, and it’s admittedly too much of a stretch for the movie to survive. And yet, as Peggy Sue Got Married proved, there’s great comic potential in the possibility of living high school over again from an adult perspective. Once Hiding Out reaches this point, it finds some amusing situations.

Cryer rediscovers the torture of being called to the principal’s office, for example; and he vigorously takes an opposing stand when the uptight history teacher tries to provide the class with a whitewashed version of the Nixon administration.

Most perturbing, however, is the crush that a popular senior girl (Annabelle Gish) develops on Cryer. He takes her out on a date, and even manages to impress her father by dishing out a little free stock-market advice. But he also feels like a dirty old man, since he’s a good 10 years older than his steady girl.

Hiding Out bounces around in an amiable way, helped along by Cryer’s affability and the beguiling honesty of Annabelle Gish (she was the memorable central character of Desert Bloom). The director, Bob Giraldi, also keeps things bopping along – not surprising, perhaps, because Giraldi made his name in the music video field, as the director of such high-powered short shots as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Say Say Say.” This is his first feature.

Cryer finds himself back in high school, the setting for his biggest success to date, Pretty in Pink, where he had a delightful scene-stealing role as Ducky. Eventually, as Cryer explained during a recent publicity visit to Seattle, he hopes to move on to more mature roles. “Yeah, I want to graduate,” he says. “I got offered a lot of Ducky roles after Pretty in Pink.”

Cryer sees Hiding Out as an analogy for his situation as an actor: Like the character, he keeps getting dragged back to high school against his will. But, he insists with some vehemence, “I don’t care who you go to the prom with anymore, I really don’t.”

Still, there are realities to be faced by the youngish-looking 22-year-old actor. Cryer tried to grow his own beard for the early Wall Street scenes in Hiding Out, but admits that the efforts “wound up making me look like Bork.” A fake beard was installed.

Cryer’s future looks more promising. Still to come is a movie he made before Hiding Out, Dudes, directed by Penelope Spheeris. “That’s a weird little movie.”

First published in the Herald, November 5, 1987

Either something got cut out at the end, or I seriously lost interest. The beard reference would be Robert Bork, the Supreme Court nominee of eccentric facial hair and conservative inclination. This movie was from DEG Films, that DeLaurentiis project that brought Blue Velvet the same year. Different kind of movie, that one.


Meatballs Part II

December 29, 2011

I never would have believed that any movie could make the huge-grossing (in every sense of the term) Meatballs look good, but here it is: Meatballs Part II, a dead-in-the-water comedy about summer camp.

The fact that it’s about summer camp is the sole similarity with the original Meatballs. That film, the most successful Canadian release in history, cleaned up at the turnstiles solely on the strength of a hilarious central performance by Bill Murray.

Meatballs Part II doesn’t have Murray, and it doesn’t have anything to replace him. It’s a summer-camp session with the usual jokes about counselors trying to make whoopee under difficult conditions.

The main plot has the zany Camp Sasquatch trying to best military Camp Patton (“Where Outdoor Living Molds Killers”) in the annual boxing championship. Sasquatch’s boxing hope (John Mengatti) is a street kid who starts to like a shy girl (Kim Richards).

The only remotely humorous moments in the film are had by Hamilton Camp, doing a rabid disciplinarian number as the leader of Camp Patton, and John Larroquette, who plays his swishy assistant. It’s old and disreputable humor, but these two actors have a certain chemistry.

Otherwise, funny Richard Mulligan (of “Soap” and S.O.B.) is wasted, as is Paul Reubens, better known to one and all in his comic incarnation as Pee-wee Herman. It’s too bad the producers didn’t see Reubens’ potential, because a passable comedy might have been constructed out of this mess with Reubens as a manic center, as Murray was for Meatballs.

There are two oddities about Meatballs Part II. One is that there is an outer-space angle: a little E.T. imitation is dropped off by his parents to enjoy the summer camp. Apparently, he does. Very strange.

Also, one of the main campers is a handicapped boy in a wheelchair. This is not a first. There was a paraplegic kid who was a victim—er, character—in the summer camp of Friday the 13th, Part 3.

But it’s unusual to see a handicapped character as simply another person in an exploitation comedy. Except for a joke at the beginning when this guy’s motorized wheelchair outraces the camp bus, the handicap is barely mentioned. No cheap pathos, no sob story. He’s just another camper. That’s a peculiarly enlightened attitude for this otherwise uninteresting film.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1984

If I’m using the phrase “make whoopee” I must be pretty disengaged. No excuse for that, except the movie itself, which is grueling. The original Meatballs might be awful, but Bill Murray is heroic in it—in his early movies he seems liberated not just as a comedian but as someone unwilling to pretend to be part of a movie. The director of Meatballs Part II is Ken Wiederhorn, who previously helmed King Frat and Eyes of a Stranger, and whose next film would be Return of the Living Dead Part II. That’s a helluva movie marathon for some lost weekend.