Plain Clothes

March 26, 2020

plainclothesA teacher staggers into a high­ school classroom, glassy-eyed and mumbling. Nothing too unusual about that, you think, until he falls to his knees, mutters the cryptic phrase “Easy grader,” then falls dead, a knife in his back. The students seize the opportunity for an impromptu recess.

This nutty opening sets the tone for Plain Clothes, which uses a recently popular movie plot – adult returns to high school posing as a student – and finds new, funny material in it. In this instance, the adult is a Seattle cop named Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) whose teen-age brother is accused of the murder; Nick returns to school under the alias Nick Springsteen. “Any relation?” people keep asking him. “Distant,” he says mysteriously.

The uncovering of the plot is the excuse for some utterly pixilated comedy, a mix of rapid-fire offbeat verbal exchanges and daffy character pieces. Nick meets a gallery of suspects, including the sawdust­ covered shop teacher (George Wendt) with the obligatory missing fingers; the semi-hysterical administrator (Diane Ladd) who uses the cast on her arm for different kinds of emphasis; the crazed principal (Robert Stack) whose public address system is his lifeline, and possibly his only connection, to the world.

This movie is stuffed with black­ humored details and bizarre moments (a police SWAT team descends upon a suspect holed up in a kiddie park of elf houses). The sound­ track is full of offscreen asides that recall the layered, did-I-just-hear-­what-I-thought-I-heard gags of a Richard Lester movie. Even the romance is off-kilter, as Nick the student finds himself lusting after a teacher (Suzy Amis).

Up until the time when it has to start paying attention to the matter of sewing up its plot (which doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t really need to), Plain Clothes establishes the dizziest comic atmosphere of any movie so far this year. Much credit for this goes to director Martha Coolidge, who made the entire film in Seattle and returned recently for some interviews.

While here, she talked about comedy, the form she has found herself in despite her background as a maker of substantial documentaries.

“You have to take comedy seriously,” she says. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. One of the effects of TV is to dilute certain kinds of comedy. TV skits have invaded movie comedy; you can have one great scene, and that’s it. The great comedies in the world have great characters.”

Coolidge’s features, Valley Girl and Real Genius, were notable throwbacks to a more traditional kind of screwball comedy. Valley Girl, for example, may have begun life as a teen exploitation pie, but Coolidge drew out all the hot, Romeo and Juliet romance of the situation, eschewing the usual titillation of the genre. In movies, she said,”Romance and sex are more powerful the more withheld they are.”

Of casting the serious actor Arliss Howard in Plain Clothes, she says, “I always thought of this as Steve McQueen Goes to High School.” She says she wanted the contrast of the crazy things happening to the non-comedic lead, and admits, “I don’t think anybody would have thought of putting Arliss in a comedy except me.”

Her next film will probably be another comedy, but she’s also been working on a military action movie and a TV pilot full of “male bonding and humor. I’m offered a lot of women’s pictures,” she says. “Directors get typecast. A big hit would be very helpful.”

Regardless of how Plain Clothes performs at the box-office, Coolidge is a hot property.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

I interviewed Coolidge a couple of times over the years; the more substantive one came for a Film Comment story about Rambling Rose, her terrific (and weirdly undersung) 1991 film. A smart filmmaker who deserved the “big hit” that might have given her more opportunities (still, an admirable collection of films). 


Valley Girl

November 30, 2010

Cage, Foreman, not at all grody

(Sorry, I have to do a prelude with this reprint: the whole joke of the opening paragraphs is that this review was written in mid-1983. Okay, proceed.)

Remember 1982? Those were the days: E.T., the Go-Go’s, Smurfs. And remember those crazy Valley Girls, who rose up from the shopping centers and hair salons in California, with their wacky sayings—”Gag me with a spoon,” and “Fer sure,” and “Tubular”? Valley Girl mania must have lasted a good four, maybe five months.

Back then, it probably sounded like a great idea to cash in on the trend with a movie—just slap the title Valley Girl on it, throw a bit of plot around the edges, and make a quick little killing.

But life was simpler, more clear-cut, back in ’82. For instance, the big crisis in Valley Girl springs from its Romeo and Juliet situation: our Valley Girl heroine, Julie (Deborah Foreman), falls for punk rocker Randy (Nicolas Cage), and runs the risk of being ostracized by her preppy friends.

Now, as the movie finally opens in the Northwest (six months or so after its initial release), the differences between the preppies and the punks have pretty much disappeared. Lifestyles, fashion, and music have melted into a single mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom.

This might suggest that Valley Girl is already dated, or less believable than it might have been. Maybe so. But if those battle lines between fashion factions have become blurred lately, it doesn’t mean Valley Girl can’t be enjoyed on its own merits.

And, believe it or not, it does have merits. Modest merits, to be sure; but there’s a good-natured feeling about the whole low-budget enterprise that makes it endearing.

Not that the film doesn’t engage in the usual shenanigans of this genre; there are plenty of teen-age girls in bikinis, and a few sophomoric sex jokes. That’s to be expected. But Valley Girl is a world away from the likes of Porky’s.

This film presents its two main characters—winningly played by dimpled Foreman and sleepy-eyed Cage—with a fair portion of sensitivity. Their friendship doesn’t just exist to provide a springboard for a string of gags; it actually seems to matter.

The care with which Valley Girl is made is probably courtesy of the director, Martha Coolidge. Coolidge is not particularly gifted with the camera—although she’s clearly made the film under shoestring conditions—but she has a talent with the young actors, and the film moves along nicely.

There’s a scene in which Julie and Randy go on a walking date through the streets of Los Angeles, and Coolidge frames the couple against the garish neon signs of fast-food places and shopping malls. The sequence manages to be as romantic as if they were walking down a Parisian boulevard, and it’s funny, too—but in a friendly way, not a sarcastic way.

To over-praise Valley Girl is to kill it, so I’ll stop. After all, the Big Decision of the movie involves Julie’s choice for the senior prom. But if that kind of thing can still seem crucial to you, think about giving this little movie a look.

First published in the Herald, 1983.

Oh, go ahead: over-praise! I love this movie. I guess that “mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom” was called New Wave, a patch of music history I remain un-fond of. (However, good soundtrack here, leaning heavily on the Plimsouls’ glorious “A Million Miles Away” and Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” songs that remind you that great music emerges even in the down times.) The opening paragraphs were intended as a joke on the quickness of fads, because the review was written barely a year after that stuff happened. I was wrong about Coolidge’s gifts with the camera (she’s very aware and precise as a visual filmmaker). I interviewed Coolidge for a Film Comment piece when Rambling Rose came out (FC issue Nov.-Dec. 1991) and she talked about how Valley Girl came out of all the research she’d done on a punk love story that was going to be produced by Francis Coppola; when that project went kerflooey, she put all her feeling for music and the milieu into Valley Girl. I’m so glad I pointed out the neon-lit date scene; that’s a magical moment in movie romance, especially given the incongruous setting—but the incongruous setting makes the moment all the more precious.

“A Million Miles Away,” on YouTube.