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?

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Critters

October 4, 2011

Critters is a modest sleeper, all the more unexpected because it appears to be nothing more than another of the occasional rip-offs of Gremlins.

And, in fact, it is another rip-off of Gremlins, but it’s quite cheerful about its borrowings, and hard to dislike. The film’s tone, like Gremlins, is comic-scary, but it doesn’t have the distasteful spoofiness of some imitators.

The movie’s about some bowling-ball-sized renegade beasties who escape their planet and zoom across the galaxy on an inevitable collision course with the third planet from the sun. They’re chased by a pair of cosmic bounty hunters who can change their appearance to fit the planet they work on (these guys are borrowed from The Terminator).

On the way, one hunter tunes in to MTV, and he metamorphoses into the appearance of a fictional rock star (a funny idea that isn’t really developed).

Everybody crash-lands in a Kansas cow field, near the house of your typical all-American family. The critters invade the house and terrorize the family, while the bounty hunters go into the small town nearby and search for the fugitives, meanwhile knocking things around pretty good.

These critters are furry, with large mouths and three or four rows of teeth. They speak in intergalacticese, but subtitles make their language comprehensible (and, incidentally, provide the biggest laugh of the movie when a critter uses an earthbound expletive).

The little guys are distinguished not by their cunning, but by their ferocity. They love biting into a leg or a shoulder and holding on for dear life.

Co-writer and director Stephen Herek leans heavily on the comedy, but he keeps the suspense genuine (will the family be able to hold off the critters until the bounty hunters get there?) and he doesn’t trivialize the family. It helps that he cast good actors as the parents (Dee Wallace Stone and Billy Green Bush), and a lively kid (Scott Grimes) as the precocious son who gets the family out of a few scrapes.

The local color in the town is provided by M. Emmett Walsh (Blood Simple) as the sheriff and Don Opper (Android) as the town simpleton, who believes he picks up alien radio conversations in the fillings of his teeth.

Herek’s aim is too small, and finally a bit too silly, to attract the crossover crowd that made Gremlins a huge hit. The popularity of Critters will probably be limited to those who are fans of the genre already. But those fans are likely to get a kick out of it.

First published in the Herald, April 16, 1986

Fun movie. Herek’s next film was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a very sharp effort that left the impression he might be a real comer, although he hasn’t fulfilled the quirky promise (he had a family-film success with the first Mighty Ducks picture and competently did the Oscar-bait thing with Mr. Holland’s Opus). Don Opper, a memorable presence, stuck with the Critters sequels, one of which, Critters 3, was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first movie.