The Sure Thing/Into the Night

May 18, 2011

I happened to see The Sure Thing and Into the Night as an informal double bill one Friday night. But that’s not the only reason they stick together in my mind. Both have their roots in the lovely traditions of screwball comedy; both update the form with wit; and both are, as David Bowie puts it in Into the Night, “very nice, very impressive.”

The opening sequence of The Sure Thing gives us Rod Stewart’s obnoxious “Infatuation,” a perfectly gorgeous (and perfectly uninteresting) California beach nymph, and lots of sun, sand, and skin. It looks like every other teen comedy made in the last five years. But director Rob Reiner is having a joke on us: as we get to his credit, the music fades out, the camera tilts up from the nymph’s bod, and we’re looking at the heavens. We’ve suddenly traveled across the continent, where we will take up the story of Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack), whose early college career—i.e., inability to get dates—we will follow.

This is amusing, but enchantment really sets in when Gib sets out for L.A. (where a high school buddy has arranged a “sure thing”—the nymph on the beach), having procured a ride for Christmas vacation off a bulletin board at school. Problems ensue—not from the squeaky-clean freak couple doing the driving, even if they like to sing show tunes. The problem is the other passenger, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), who has reason to loathe Gib. She’s traveling to L.A. to meet her boyfriend; they’re going to be lawyers, move to Vermont, and reconstruct an old farmhouse. Obviously, Gib and Alison are hopelessly mismatched and destined to fall in love.

That process makes for a nifty movie. Among other things, this cross-country trek feels like a journey, unlike many movies that try to capture an It Happened One Night feeling and somehow leave you with the impression that you haven’t traveled very far. There is something in the way Reiner chronicles the many road signs, billboards, motel rooms, that defines a rhythm of travel and movement. (Telling sign of Reiner’s sense of the importance of life’s simple but peculiar pleasures: Gib and Alison are stranded by the road outside Nowheresville, U.S.A., without food, money, or transportation. He extends a bag of junk food and speaks the gallant line, “Care for a fried pork rind?” Reiner knows.)

And Reiner has a healthy—if not fully developed—appreciation for the sort of zanies that should fill the supporting roles in a screwball adventure like this, so by the time Gib sidles into a cowboy joint to share a Christmas brewski with a wizened cowpoke and an enormous man who can’t understand his failure to pick up the waitress (his charming come-on line is something like, “You know I had fried food for lunch today?”), we accept it happily. But most of all, Reiner has gotten superb work from his two leads; they’re thoroughly winning, and you sense that a director has shaped and encouraged these performances. All of which proves something: that This Is Spinal Tap, which could have been perceived as a non-directed movie, given its eccentric and collaborative nature, was no fluke. Meathead is a budding auteur.

Into the Night attempts a similar kind of screwball enchantment, but with a more Hitchcockian flavor. Jeff Goldblum is an aerospace engineer who suffers from insomnia and cuckoldry. Thanks to John Landis and Michelle Pfeiffer, Goldblum gets his feet knocked out from under him and falls into an L.A.-by-night world of smugglers, movie people, millionaires, bloodthirsty Arabs, and finally, a Ramada Inn.

I had a hell of a good time watching all this sharp and funny stuff go tumbling by, although I felt slightly guilty afterwards. Did Landis earn all his laughs? Were the lapses in plot justified by the film’s rushing, cavalier attitude toward coherence—do we buy it all “on good faith,” as Goldblum says late in the film? Were the lurches in tone—there are some ugly deaths in the film—intended to be jarring, or is that just clumsiness on Landis’s part? Or is it just my problem?

That may well be. By the way, the real ongoing guessing game here has nothing to do with the plot—it’s trying to spot all the Hollywood cameos Landis has crowded into the movie (Landis himself plays a fairly sizable role as a gunman). It’s especially crammed with directors, some of whom—maybe especially David Cronenberg and Amy Heckerling—are delicious. But that takes nothing away from the stars. Pfeiffer has definitely got something that would make a normal guy want to follow her all night long, and Goldblum gives a very controlled, special performance. All through the night, he keeps up an unflappable exterior, as though he knew he were asleep and dreaming all this nonsense, and about to wake up in another minute. So, bemused, he decides to enjoy it while it’s going on.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Not everybody was keen on Cusack at this moment, but in 1985 he was the guy I was casting in the youth movies I was making inside my head. Reiner was off on his unexpected run to the A-list of Hollywood directors, where he resided for a while; it seemed as though he’s cooled his engagement with movies, having found politics a more urgent source of interest. Landis’s career is even more of a puzzle, and he followed this interesting effort with Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, a couple of absolute stinkers.

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Pretty in Pink

May 12, 2011

rich, poor, duck

John Hughes has been dubbed “The Word Processor” for the facility with which he turns out screenplays; even since he’s become a director in his own right, he’s kept up a flow of pages. Four films have come from his computer terminal in the space of two years, with another on the way this summer.

They’ve ranged in quality: Sixteen Candles was a charming directorial debut, and The Breakfast Club was a surprisingly ambitious meditation on teenage anxiety. Then came the out-of-control Weird Science, which might better have been cut by an hour and flipped into a TV slot of “Amazing Stories.”

Now we have Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but has allowed someone else to direct. (He was probably facing some sort of union violation with all that productivity.)

It covers familiar teen territory, and has much the same feel as Sixteen Candles (including that film’s star, Molly Ringwald). The situation is basic: A girl from the po’ side of town (Ringwald) falls for a richie (Andrew McCarthy), but they both suffer from peer disapproval of such a mixed matchup.

Undergoing special excruciation is the girl’s pal Duckie (Jon Cryer), a goof who worships her and detests his straight-laced competition. Duckie is a version of the quick-witted, hustling geek played by Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, and he provides most of the laughs, especially in the early part of the movie.

Unfortunately, he’s offscreen for far too long in the latter part of the film, as Ringwald passes through a crisis when McCarthy revokes his cherished invitation to the prom. She’s also got to counsel her dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s in the dumps because his wife ran out on the family a few years earlier.

Ringwald works at a hip record store managed by a confidante (Annie Potts) who specializes in kitschy fashion chic and lives mainly in the ’60s. At one point Potts cautions Ringwald to give up on a tardy date: “It’s after seven. Don’t waste good lip gloss.” It’s a plum role for Potts, who has enlivened films for a few years now (Crimes of Passion) without quite finding her niche.

In fact, the film is nicely played throughout. James Spader, for instance, invests the small role of the bigoted rich kid with enough hissability to forever typecast himself.

But director Howard Deutch, although he’s aided by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s subtle visuals, can’t hoist the material above TV-movie interest. Hughes’ dialogue sparkles now and again, but there’s nothing tying all the pieces together.

This becomes most glaringly evident at the film’s ending, when the three principals face off at the prom. Ringwald must choose between her geeky pal or the dreamy richie, but you don’t know exactly why she chooses as she does. What’s worse, the film waffles on the matter, contriving a convenient partner for the third wheel. (Rumors that the ending was reshot to appease disappointed preview audiences suggest this waffling was not originally intended.)

Not to worry. Hughes can redeem himself with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-directed comedy scheduled for this summer. But then, by that time, he’ll probably have three new movies in the can.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1986

What happened was, this movie made at least as big an impression on people as Sixteen Candles, if not bigger. So go figure. Apparently changing the ending paid off nicely; when Hughes and Deutch went to the well again with Some Kind of Wonderful, they rectified things a little as far as the misfit character having a taste of triumph. Spader managed to elude the typecasting, although it was a close call for a while.