A Look Back: Roxanne

I’m no social psychologist, but I’ve noticed that the laughter in the movie theater tends to follow one of the four patterns.

1) No one laughs because the movie’s about an ultra-serious subject.

2) One or two people laugh intermittently throughout the whole thing.

3) Several “pockets” of people laugh consistently, perhaps not caring so much what the rest of the audience thinks as long as their companions also find the movie funny.

4) In at least one scene, the entire audience cracks up and enjoys a communal moment of mirth.

Most of the time, 4) does not happen, at least at the films I see. Humor is a subjective thing. But one time it memorably did was when I saw the movie “Roxanne,” a modern day “Cyrano De Bergerac” starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah. The particular scene was the one when Steve’s character is insulted by the original insult “Big Nose,” as he passes a drunk. Instead of doing what he usually does: resorting to skillful physical violence, he decides to confront the guy directly and offer at least 20 insults far more cleverer.

If you keep track, it’s clear that he goes over the stated number (though this isn’t addressed in the film). Just quoting the monologue removes a few layers of humor, it’s something that’s best watched firsthand. I don’t know how well it would hold up if I saw it now, but I remember how virtually everyone in my audience watching the movie in the theater was in stitches during this particular scene (though most people in my memory found the rest of the film amusing, too).

The movie begins by establishing that Steve’s character (his name changed to the more prosaic C.D. Beals) is a firefighter in a small town, who, unlike the rest of his crew, possesses a) irony and b) intelligence, the former of which he tells love interest Daryl Hannah that he stopped practicing years ago because he got tired of being stared at.  As for intelligence, it’s demonstrated in several scenes, including one in which his fellow firemen struggle with a ladder to rescue a treed cat, while Steve simply opens a can of food and flushes the cat out right away.

We also learn (along with newbie firefighter, Rick Rossovich) that Steve is quite sensitive about his nose, and it’s best not stare or make any open remarks on the subject. Unfortunately, Rick, who is handsome but not too bright, can’t keep from blurting out something tactless, but he unexpectedly gets a pass because Steve is in the first flush of love with Daryl, a gorgeous astronomer. Rick is also attracted to Daryl, and eventually, Steve agrees to coach him in the art of witty wooing banter when he goes over to Daryl’s home.

This does not go smoothly – at one point, Steve tells Rick to say that he is scared of words, which Rick mishears as “worms,” and pretty soon Daryl is both confused and disgusted, however, she does wind up hooking up with Rick (who tells Steve the next day that he just shut his mouth and didn’t say a word during the seduction).   Wacky high jinks continue until Steve winds up composing a series of romantic letters and then admitting the truth.  And Daryl realizes that it is possible to love a guy for more than his outward appearance, so there’s a welcome happy ending.


A Look Back: “Big”

I imagine after “Big” came out in 1988, FAO Schwarz had to put up a sign instructing patrons who wanted to imitate the dance Tom Hanks and his boss do on the walkable floor keyboard, “No ‘Chopsticks.'”  Kind of like the sign in the guitar shop in “Wayne’s World,” that said, “No ‘Stairway to Heaven.'”  In the movie  “Big,” it takes them only a few seconds to coordinate their moves and perform an impromptu rendition of “Chopsticks,” although I’m sure it took them far longer to get it down pat in real life.

There were several movies in the eighties (“18 Again,” “Vice Versa”) in which the main character switches places and/or gets to experience becoming a grownup.  “!8 Again” was dragged out of mothballs and remade starring Zak Efron, while “The Parent Trap,” which originally featured Hayley Mills got an update with Lindsay Lohan playing the spunky, scheming identical twins who try to reunite their divorced parents.  And Lohan also did another remake of a Disney classic, “Freaky Friday,” in which mom and daughter switch places.  “As a father, you’re swell,” says the original Annabelle, played by young Jodie Foster, as she contemplates her new status, “but as a husband, you’re more like a traffic cop.”

The one problem I’ve always had with movies where the main character wakes up in the morning in a dramatically different body is how long they take to figure it out.  In Tom Hanks’ case in “Big,” he goes from a preteen to a fully grown man, but it takes him a surprising amount of time to grasp this.  Now this would be extremely frightening, but I think a even glance down at your arms when you’re in bed would clue you in.  Also, the fact that your sleepwear no longer fits.  Anyway….

Tom Hanks gets his wish to become big by making a wish on a mysterious gypsy machine, but of course, being an adult is hardly a panacea for his current childish problems, and he winds up having to flee his house when his mom thinks that he’s kidnapped her son.  So Tom finds his best friend (still a kid), (Jared Rushton) who helps him get an apartment and a job at toy company.  He’s’ thrilled to get a paycheck, and winds up bonding with his boss through the FAO Schwarz scene (in which Tom’s shopping for toys – for himself).  The boss is also impressed when Tom suggests changes to a Transformer-like toy to make it less boring, and his stock soars.  Soon he’s playing racquetball with a colleague (John Heard), who’s dating the beautiful Elizabeth Perkins, who soon begins to find Tom’s open enthusiasm and naïveté charming.   She even agrees to “sleep over” at Tom’s fancy new man cave, which he’s equipped with all sorts of toys and gadgets, not to mention a bunk bed.  The movie sidesteps whether or not they actually have sex, which is wise because that raises questions that aren’t in sync with the film’s tone.  (There’s a similar scene in “13 Going on 30” in which Jennifer Garner’s boyfriend starts to strip to “Ice Ice Baby,” and it cuts to an indignant Jennifer informing her girlfriend the next day, “He didn’t have any toys at all!”)

Tom manages to convince his parents that he’s been kidnapped but will return home – after he’s found the fortune telling machine and made another wish to be a kid.   Surprisingly, he realizes that he’s not really keen on being an adult, with all the adult-sized issues that come with it, and fortunately, he is successful in once again becoming small.  “Big” is a movie whose charms rest mostly on the shoulders of Tom, which I realized even when I originally saw it.   It’s one of those films that you enjoy when you’re in the theater, but after you come out, you start to wonder about implausibility (not with the switch itself, of course, but how it’s handled).  However, such discussion is just part of the fun.


A Look Back: Sixteen Candles

When we watch movies, we’re often presented with scenarios that require a suspension of disbelief, such as when a character accidentally makes dates for the same time and place, and rather than cancelling one like a normal person, chooses to try and be two places at once, inevitably getting humiliated in the process.  Some are completely ridiculous, but others may seem more possible.  “Home Alone,” asked parents if they could conceivably leave behind a child on a trip if it was completely hectic, the kid overslept, and whoever did the head count accidentally included the neighbor’s kid, and although I wasn’t a parent, I found that plausible enough.  Still, the set-up of an entire family (including extended relatives) forgetting their sixteen-year-old daughter’s birthday, as happens to Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles,” is chilling and hard to buy, but it’s possible nevertheless, at least for me.

That perky Molly would wake up on the morning of her sixteenth birthday and receive not a single gift or special greeting seems off at first, but when we learn that it’s the day her older sister is getting married, it seems more plausible.  To add insult to injury, though, Molly’s body is refusing to cooperate and mature in a way that would make her more apparent to her crush (Michael Schoeffling).  But even though Molly is disappointed that she hasn’t turned into a swan overnight, her grandparents have a different view.  Upon arrival, her grandmother squeals, “Fred, she’s gotten her boobies!” plus, they bring along an exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), who is definitely dorky  So things are kind of grim.

Molly’s day does not improve when she answers what is supposed to be an anonymous “sex test” in a class, and after revealing the name of her crush, realizes that he may have seen what she wrote.  We also get to see Michael’s current girlfriend (Haviland Morris) who has finished with the messy puberty process, and very hot, even though it appears that Michael may be having second thoughts about the relationship.  That night, still smarting from being neglected, Molly attends a school dance, and her humiliation increases when it turns out that even dealing with culture shock and dressing in attire that will make a character later inquire if he’s “retarded,” Gedde manages to hook up much faster than she does.  (Alcohol and other recreational substances are the great equalizer – they make teens from all cultures lose their inhibitions.)  Michael and Haviland attend the dance, too, as does a character simply called the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) who has a huge crush on Molly.  It turns out that there is much more embarrassment in store.

In fairy tales, the heroine sometimes has to undergo a humiliating test before she triumphs, gets her prince and lives happily ever after, and this is certainly true for Molly in this movie.  The heroine may also encounter a person who is “different” in some way: elderly, unattractive, etc., and after proving that they are compassionate, are rewarded unexpectedly.  This happens here, too, when Molly agrees to lend Anthony her panties for an hour, so he can show them off to the entire freshmen male population – and he agrees to put in a good word for her with Michael.  Later on, at a party Michael is hosting, a series of unexpected events occur when Haviland passes out drunk, and like a gentleman, he lends Anthony his car so he can deal with her, after learning of Molly’s true feelings.  (In other words, date rape occurs, though this is played completely for laughs so no one has to undergo moral dilemmas or deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome.)  Haviland, as far as movie mean girls go is pretty benign, and her only real “crime” appears to be looking over twenty and not being able to hold her liquor, so when I saw “Sixteen Candles” I did feel sorry for her.  But she’s really a side-note in the story.

Now that he’s slipped his leash, Michael attempts several times to get in touch with Molly, but gets a tongue lashing from her grandparents via phone.  When the wedding arrives, Molly is a bridesmaid (by this time, her dad has remembered her birthday), and her sister winds up with her own dose of humiliation, thanks to a bottle of muscle relaxants.  When Molly comes out of the church, Michael appears like magic and gestures toward her – and it turns out that he’s managed to procure a birthday cake, even though it might be more prudent to try and clean up his totally trashed home before his parents see it.  But that would make for a much less satisfying ending.

A Look Back: Beaches

“Beaches” is a very depressing movie, though I’m sure on paper it looked more heartwarming. For one thing, only a minority of scenes actually take place on the beach. We begin with Bette Midler getting a call in the middle of singing rehearsal from her lifelong friend, played by Barbara Hershey, and then there’s a flashback to when young Bette (played with pizazz by Mayim “Blossom” Bialik) and young Barbara (Marcie Leeds) meet cute (but not too cutesy) when they are eleven and on vacation.  Mayim is a cocky budding child star, and the admiring Marcie winds up accompanying her to an impromptu audition for a talent show.  She doesn’t get the part, but the two decide to become pen pals.  They then grow up rapidly, until they turn into their adult counterparts.  At this point, the movie takes on the quality of a soggy soufflé, and if you continue to watch it to the end, other things will also get soggy, including your refreshments and your Kleenex.

While Bette chooses to Follow Her Dream and become a torch singer, Barbara turns into the perfect society wife.  When the two finally meet up again, Bette has a role in an off-off Broadway musical about the invention of the brassiere (really), and when Barbara watches it, her WASP sensibilities are badly shaken, but she tries to be supportive.  Alas, her repressed jealousy that her friend is leading a more exciting life than she is cannot be fully camouflaged, and the two “friends” wind up having an epic fight in a department store, the only amusing part of which is when a saleslady asks if she can be of service.  Fortunately, Barbara discovers her husband is cheating and that she is pregnant, providing a reason to make up without losing much face.  Unfortunately, however, there is a much less joyful reason for the women to bond in the near future.

I went for years assuming Barbara here had developed some form of movie cancer – in which the patient usually looks pretty good, despite undergoing chemo, and in which the really unpleasant parts of illness happen off screen, but as it happens, she has some heart problem, and has waited too long to seek effective treatment.  By this time, the child is born, and it’s adorable little smart-mouthed girl.  The two friends return to their vacation spot, but since Barbara is dying, there is a cloud over things.  As she progresses through the stages of denial, anger and acceptance, things get grimmer and grimmer until the tragedy happens.  At the funeral, Bette belts out “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and eventually adopts the kid, since dad is no longer anywhere in the picture.  And that’s that.

“Beaches” has most of the surefire chick movie ingredients, and has some genuinely moving moments, but there are way too many scenes where the characters snipe at each other, and you find yourself thinking that permanent estrangement would not be a bad idea.  However, if you want to watch something that will have you sniffling at the end, this is perfect.  To paraphrase a quote from “Field of Dreams,” the filmmakers must have been told, “If you make it, they will come – and cry.”

A Look Back: The Secret of My Success

In the eighties, movies about the dynamics of the workplace were much more likely to put a positive spin on things.  A movie like “Office Space,” probably wouldn’t have gotten much of an enthusiastic reception because the overall message of mainstream films was that one’s (white collar) job was a positive source of self-esteem and identity.  Even if you were a kid in an adult’s body (“Big”) or a teenager trying to earn income to provide for her siblings while mom was away on a trip (“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”), finding success in an office job was possible  – and it was even likely that if you began on the lowest rung, you’d have a shot at advancing to the point where you were on a first name basis with your boss by the end of the movie.  It was also likely that if the boss was evil incarnate and planned to fire everyone, a bright, fresh-faced adorable movie star would show up and save everyone from destitution.  (Or if he was a complete sexist pig, it was okay to kidnap him and teach him a lesson, as in “Nine to Five.”)  Saving the company was the adult equivalent of getting a dream date to the prom or perhaps winning the big game.  At least thirty years ago.

“Secret of My Success” follows this formula closely.  In it, Michael J. Fox plays a young, motivated grad who gets a good business job in the Big City (to which he’s never been before) and after lining up the requisite rat hole apartment with the horny next-door neighbors, goes into his first day of work – only to discover that he no longer has a job due to a corporate takeover.  So he hits the street, but unfortunately, runs into the conundrum of either having too much experience or not enough.  At one interview, he decides to emphasis his flexibility (“Whatever you want, I can be it.”), but runs into a dead end when he’s asked if he can be a minority woman.  Finally, in desperation, Michael goes to see his Uncle Howard (Richard Jordan) who is a CEO and who gives him a job – in the mailroom.

Michael surprisingly discovers that working in that department is not particularly good for making valuable connections, but there is a bright spot when he spies a woman (Helen Slater) sipping water slo-mo from a fountain, though she at first rebuffs his attempts to get to know her.  Because Michael is driven and Has Dreams, he decides to seize the chance to masquerade as a new executive – by simply taking over a fired employee’s office.  First, he has to find a name that’s even preppier than his own, Brantley Foster, and comes up with Carlton Whitfield.  Carlton is accepted by his peers without major problems, although Michael discovers that being two places at once isn’t always easy.  Also avoiding his uncle, who sometimes drops by unexpectedly, is awkward, but he keeps going.

Complications arise when Michael (in the mailroom worker guise) gets a chance to drive home his Aunt Vera (Margaret Whitton), who doesn’t recognize him and finding him sympathetic to her problems, treats him to a diatribe on how her marriage is falling apart.  Michael, not recognizing who she is at first either, indulges in some poolside flirting, once they reach the home, but then it dawns on him.  However, Margaret is more amused than horrified by the coincidence.

Eventually, Michael’s uncle realizes that his wife has a new flame, and suspecting that it’s this new guy, Carlton, invites Michael to a weekend company get together in order to keep Carlton away from his wife.  This culminates in a scene where everything is revealed and things look grim both for Michael and the other employees in general – but then Michael comes up with a plan that saves the day – and the jobs.  Because I was only old enough for a part time job when I saw the movie, I think part of me expected more happy endings/job security when I did get old enough to join the workforce.  But to be honest, I found the office environment more like “Office Space,” complete with co-workers who quoted that movie.  Still “The Secret of My Success” is fun to watch anyway.

A Look Back: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Teen movie titles in the eighties were not known for their nuances, and of course, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is basically one day in the life of the titular hero, played by Matthew Broderick, who faces off against a hopelessly dweeby school principal (Jeffrey Jones), determined to catch him ditching school and make an example.  Coincidentally, years later, Matthew would play the Ed Rooney character in the movie “Election,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays overachiever Tracy Flick, who faces off against a hopelessly dweeby teacher, determined to reveal that this girl is really a devious cheater.

In the end, both authority figures fail miserably.

Anyway, the machinations that Matthew goes through in order to have a day off with his best friend (Alan Ruck) and best girl (Mia Sara) are so convoluted that the viewer may be forgiven thinking that it might just have been easier to go to school.  But it soon becomes clear, after Matthew’s parents depart for work, leaving their “sick” son in bed, and he gets up and breaks the fourth wall, that his character thrives on this kind of brain power.  Setting the stage is half the fun.

The possibility that Matthew’s parents might call or drop by unexpectedly to check on him is the least of his concerns.  And if the principal phones them insisting that their son is ditching, they won’t believe a word.   The fact that they dote on him, however, makes his sister (Jennifer Grey) absolutely livid with jealousy, and she decides to ditch school as well, in order to expose her brother as faking the whole thing.

Undaunted by all of this, Matthew “persuades” his anal-retentive friend Cameron to borrow Daddy’s Ferrari, which the dad loves so much he won’t even take it out on the road.  After faking the death of Mia’s grandmother, they pick her up from school where the rest of the students are vegetating in Ben Stein’s class, and they head off to the Big City.

What do they do there?  All sorts of wacky things, including narrowly missing getting seen by Matthew’s dad several times.  Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, Jeffrey prowls around trying to tail Matthew and getting utterly humiliated in the process.  Even before he starts his hopeless quest, we can see right away that even his secretary (Edie McClurg) thinks he’s a loser.

Matthew does have a few close calls, but by the end of the movie, is triumphantly the same free spirit he was at the start of the movie.  If anyone has undergone a character change, it’s Alan, who eventually chooses to stand up to his father after the car gets trashed beyond repair, and also Jennifer, who hooks up with Charlie Sheen at the police station and finally begins to realize that she should worry more about her own life than her brother’s.  After all, he got a computer, and she got a car.


A Look Back: Pretty in Pink

When I first saw “Pretty In Pink,” as a teen, I’m afraid the uppermost thought in my mind while watching the first 20 minutes was not, “Wow, what a spunky nonconformist heroine,” but “if Molly’s character, Andie Walsh, is supposed to be so poor, why does she have her own bedroom phone and car?”  I also did not (I suspected) have quite the reaction to Molly’s self-designed prom outfit and ultimate choice of guys.  At first, I thought she should have gone with Jon Cryer’s Duckie, but on second thought, I didn’t think any of the three was good enough for her.  However, I was probably in the minority there.

The movie opens with Molly getting ready for school and then showing off her outfit to her rather disheveled, seedy looking, but still loving single father (Harry Dean Stanton).  She designs and sews all of her outfits, which makes her the target of mockery with her upper crust peers but will probably one day win her a scholarship to an art institute.  She reminds Dad it’s time he should start thinking about getting a job, and then it’s off, across the railroad tracks (figuratively, though the tracks are literal in “Some Kind of Wonderful”) to her school.

She then arrives, and we meet her best friend, Duckie, who has a crush on her that even I, at a young age, thought was awfully disturbing.  But Molly goes with it, so I did, too.  We also get introduced to James Spader’s Stef, who is clearly supposed to be the bad guy because in eighties movie tradition he is blond, heavily moussed and rich, but also for some bizarre reason, interested in Molly, who turns his invitation down flat.  Fortunately, Molly’s choices are not limited to her stalker-in-training best friend and Evil Rich Guy because when she’s studying, she gets a computer message from Andrew McCarthy, who is also rich, but actually, gasp, kind of nice.  So she agrees to go on a date with him, but makes him pick her up at the record store where she works because she is too ashamed to let him see where she lives.

There is tension, of course, when they are each introduced to their date’s social circle, but the two manage to keep seeing each other, even as shock waves ripple through the entire high school because no one can conceive of a Poor Girl going out with a Rich Guy.  There’s also a subplot about Molly’s dad not having a job and not being able to accept that his wife has left for good, but fortunately, Molly possess a preternatural wisdom and does set him straight, as she does the school principal in another scene.  She’s even so principled that she tells off Andrew for being so wishy-washy when it comes to asking her to the prom (he’s starting to cave in from familial pressure, though we never meet his evil parents).  She decides to go the prom alone, “just to show them they didn’t break me.”

Molly’s best girl friend gives her an old dress, and her dad brings home one, too.  She rips up both to make a single one, and the end result is hardly flattering, but everyone from her dad to Jon, who shows up at the prom to give her moral support, loves it.  Unsurprisingly, Andrew is there, and he finally develops the cojones to tell off James and follow his heart.  Even Jon gets a girl to dance with.  At least, Molly wound up with someone whose budding computer skills will probably help him find a good job in the nineties.  Although she really should have held out until after graduation where she could find a much bigger selection of guys in college.