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?


Disorganized Crime

January 11, 2012

Disorganized Crime reworks a formula that has reaped considerable benefits for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures: mixing action with comedy. Touchstone has varied the formula from buddy movies to outright slapstick (examples include Stakeout, Shoot to Kill, and Three Fugitives), but all feature guns and laughs.

The screenwriter of Stakeout, Jim Kouf, has tried his hand at directing with Disorganized Crime, from his own original script. Kouf’s previous work reflects the fact the he has obviously studied some classic comedies. With Disorganized Crime, he has borrowed from the venerable tradition of heist movies.

It’s a pretty smart tack, because a heist movie has almost indestructible appeal. You watch a caper set up, then you watch it play out. The suspense is built in, and the last half of the movie generally takes care of itself.

In Disorganized Crime, the heist is the movie’s best sustained sequence. Unfortunately, Kouf has his problems with the rest of the picture.

A veteran bank robber (Corbin Bernsen) scopes out a bank in a small Montana town and finds it to his liking. He sends messages to four of his best colleagues in crime, asking them to gather for the job. But before they hit town, he’s arrested by a couple of bumbling New Jersey cops (Ed O’Neill and Daniel Roebuck) and thrown in the town jail.

Meantime, the team arrives. Looming, marvelous Fred Gwynne plays the wise old pro of the group, a calm-handed explosives expert. Lou Diamond Phillips plays a cool young robber, while Ruben Blades gets the best wardrobe (and the best lines). Rounding out the quartet is William Russ (terrific last year in a series of episodes on TV’s “Wise Guy”) as a temperamental safecracker.

Without their ringleader, these guys sit around an empty house in the mountains for a while, wondering what to do and getting on each other’s nerves. Kouf runs out of material for them quite soon, and a side plot about Bernsen escaping from the police never takes off.

More damagingly, Kouf doesn’t have much sense of comedic timing (which he established in his first film as director, Miracles). He becomes desperate, using and reusing jokes about pig slop and emphasizing four-letter words when he runs out of things to say, which happens early on.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

Mr. Kouf has had a long career, still going strong, and clearly has a knack for grabby movie-movie ideas (he wrote The Hidden and, with director Robert Greenwalt, Secret Admirer, which ought to be remembered as a classic 1980s youth comedy but for some reason isn’t; Kouf and Greenwalt are currently involved in TV’s “Grimm”). So I got nothing against the guy, except possibly this movie. Co-stars Russ and Roebuck returned for Kouf’s 2010 directing effort, A Fork in the Road. This was a promising time for Russ, a strong second lead, and a nice run for Fred Gwynne, who’d finally gotten out from under the shadow of Herman Munster with unexpectedly awesome appearances in Luna and The Cotton Club and a few other things.