Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
A Billionth Of What's Going On Out There
So whatever happened to the characters in wacky 80s comedies? They get involved in all these crazy mix-ups and mistaken identities then the whole thing climaxes in some kind of big chase after which the bad guy is pulled away screaming by the police for some reason that never makes sense. Everything is cleared up, the lead guy and girl kiss, everyone dances as the end credits roll and the music video (by someone like Starship) plays on MTV for the next six months. I’m guessing that afterwards they go on and lead very dull lives like even fictional characters have to eventually do. And now, decades later, I stumble across one of these movies on cable every now and then which reminds me that, good god, I actually lived during this period. Well, maybe some of the music is better then I’d like to admit and at least there were movies released by Orion but can’t we just seal up the 80s and forget the whole damn thing? Sadly, we can’t. And what’s worse is sometimes I wind up watching one of these movies straight through to the end.
LOVERBOY was released at the very end of April 1989 which makes it just barely an 80s movie although the animated opening credits certainly gets it to seem right at home in the era. In some ways it’s not much better or worse than a lot of other things but some part of me deep down wants to say it’s actually not bad at all. I even feel a little guilty about saying this and I hate the very concept of the guilty pleasure, a term which has become so ridiculously overused by this point that it’s lost all meaning. But maybe there’s no other way to describe it in this case. Directed by Joan Micklin Silver (HESTER STREET, CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, CROSSING DELANCEY) and with several women among those responsible for the script (story by Robin Schiff, screenplay by Robin Schiff and Tom Roplewski & Leslie Dixon) the film has more of interest in terms of gender politics than its logline would indicate, a greater sensitivity to the overall approach than would be expected. That’s the good news. The bad news, even more than the lack of attention paid to matters like AIDS and makes the whole thing seem even more retro than was probably intended, is a gay panic subplot that plays as so unfunny now that in some ways it makes me think that the whole film should be covered in cement and forgotten about. You know, kind of like the 80s. Sometimes you’d be more than happy to defend a film that no one cares about, something that maybe has a slight amount of something that no one would expect. Sometimes the film doesn’t help you as much as you’d like. Sometimes the film falls somewhere in the middle. I guess LOVERBOY is one of those films. What, I’m supposed to be attached to MANNEQUIN instead? Who actually sat down and wrote the surprisingly detailed LOVERBOY plot summary on Wikipedia? Why did I buy the DVD? When did I buy the DVD? Why did I actually sit there and watch it to the end when it played on cable recently even though I have the DVD? Why am I writing this? Why are you reading it?
The goof-off college life of Randy Bodek (Patrick Dempsey) has reached its end with his parents (Kate Jackson and Robert Ginty) furious over his grades while girlfriend Jenny (Nancy Valen) breaking up with him over not admitting to his parents that they’re living together. Worried that the pizza delivery job he takes at Senor Pizza when he goes home might turn into something more permanent, Randy soon meets older, attractive boutique owner Alex Barnett (Barbara Carrera) who, impressed by Randy’s assertiveness, promptly seduces him then begins to pass around word of delivery boy Randy to other women around Beverly Hills via the code ‘extra anchovies’ as part of their order. Hesitant at first, Randy soon begins taking advantage of the onslaught as a way to fund the college return his father refuses to assist with while the various women he encounters teach him how to be a man. But soon the impending return of Jenny and the possibility of his parents’ divorce causes all of these elements to collide.
For whatever reason we got a brief run of these things starring Patrick Dempsey in the late 80s. The 40s-set IN THE MOOD directed by Phil Alden Robinson was actually a very good film that few people ever saw (that’s the one Mr. Peel really should be writing about so maybe someday) while CAN’T BUY ME LOVE which was a surprise hit during the summer of ’87 is one that everybody in the world seems to remember but no one ever has much to say about LOVERBOY which didn’t do any business at all when released at the very end of April ‘89. It’s not that good a movie—or maybe I just can’t bring myself to admit that it might actually come within shouting distance of being a good movie—but it does manage a deft juggling of tones that is actually rather impressive, slyly circling from the overriding goofiness throughout to a genuine sensitivity apparent that it takes to the female characters placed up against their thuggish husbands who are at times played as broadly as possible. The film comes down on the side of those women who teach Randy how to be a better man and yet at the same time it seems to acknowledge that almost everyone is fairly screwed up to begin with. Throughout it attempts to somehow keep itself a harmless date movie while still being about what it’s obviously about along with trying desperately to get a running gag out of the whole ‘extra anchovies’ thing. Randy’s a nice guy, a schnook really, while taking pratfalls into the beds of beautiful women. How can he help himself?
Of course, this mishmash of tones can only be taken so far. It is, after all, a comedy about a male gigolo that is strictly PG-13 and never really comes close to pushing the boundaries of that rating—the movie takes great pains to make sure we know that he’s not even sleeping with all of the women in question but I wonder if anyone really buys that excuse. He’s just being nice to them, listening to them and in doing so learning from them and learning how to respect them. Any actual drama that comes out of this like girlfriend Jenny learning the truth co-exists uneasily with all the pratfalls—some expertly done pratfalls, it should be said—so her feelings are swept under the rug pretty quickly and based on her performance as Randy’s mother I can’t help but wonder if anyone ever told Kate Jackson that she was actually appearing in a comedy. But to give it some credit, the film does offer a vibe that approaches old-school screwball at times that I would almost say comes off as Sturges-like in its overall feel if I didn’t want to risk totally losing whatever credibility I have. There's a nicely relaxed style to the way scenes are often allowed to play out and the actors continually seem engaged by each other which helps add to the old Hollywood feel.
Plus there’s all that wacky chase stuff that seems to take up much of the last half-hour—while searching for the kid their wives have been having an affair with Vic Tayback (seriously, ALL HAIL VIC TAYBACK), Robert Picardo and Peter Koch crank up Jerry Lee Lewis, drink whiskey and psych themselves up into becoming Men, ready to close in for the kill with the film seemingly reveling in just holding on the three of them for a few extra beats. When a fight breaks out during the big climax at the Tiki restaurant where the anniversary party is being held we hear “Hold That Tiger” presumably meant to be played by the band it feels like a ridiculous joke out of a 40s movie and I can’t entirely hate that. There is a spirit to it all along with all that bouncy 80s music, I’ll give it that much (plus some distinctly 80s fashions, par for the course for this sort of thing). And, yes, the subplot involving Randy’s dad thinking he’s gay and his exuberant relief at the end when he learns the truth (“You have no idea how happy I am to meet you!” he proudly exclaims to his son’s girlfriend) makes the film date pretty terribly now if it even played all that well then—in this sense, even THREE’S COMPANY has aged considerably better. Maybe this can be a metaphor for that decade the film appeared in. Kind of fun, breezy, enjoyable, but ultimately pretty ugly, rancid and full of hate underneath it all if you want to take a few seconds and think about it.
Keeping his energy going the whole way through Patrick Dempsey carries the film and always remains likable, even pulling off a few pretty nice pratfalls. Nancy Valen as the more-or-less female lead doesn’t have much of a role but she displays enough personality and charisma, never coming off as just the nice boring girlfriend, that it’s a shame she doesn’t have more credits. Backing them up is a pretty impressive cast, with some of the key women Randy gets involved with possibly only hired for a few days each. Personal favorite Barbara Carrera is the boutique owner who first discovers Randy, Kirstie Alley is the Fred Astaire-loving doctor (she gets the best material and brings to it just the right screwball timing), Carrie Fisher (who says ‘fuck fiber’ in the most appealing way imaginable) is the photographer whose body-building husband has lost interest and Kim Myori plays the would-be geisha. As her husband Vic Tayback, who died about a year after this came out, rips into every one of his scenes without fear particularly during his speech where he explains exactly what he believes marriage is--maybe if this film provided one of Vic Tayback's last really good roles that alone justifies its entire existence. As one of the other suspicious husbands, Robert Picardo slices through his dialogue with precision playing the sort of prick who knows he’s being a prick and seems to have made the choice to spend as much screentime with a drink in his hand as possible. E.G. Daily gets a few nice moments displaying some comic flair too. Kate Jackson and Robert Ginty at the parents each have layered moments but it's also some of the most problematic material at odds with the overall cheery approach. Dylan Walsh, later of NIP/TUCK, turns up as the prototypical yuppie bad guy with sweater tied around his neck. Rob Camilletti, who was somewhat infamous at the time as Cher’s much-younger boyfriend, has a pretty sizable supporting role and his presence locks the film into the time it was made about as much as anything.
Maybe just writing about this film marks a sort of low point. I mean, I’m supposed to say it’s a terrible movie. Even people who like terrible movies that I can’t bring myself to write about have no interest in this film. And some of it is pretty morally repellant—of course, I’m talking about the anti-gay stuff, not the Patrick Dempsey sleeps around stuff. But forgetting about that for just a few minutes, there is an enjoyable screwball feel in there I honestly respond to (plus Barbara Carrera, even if she is only in it for a few minutes) which somehow reminds me of going to the movies when I was a kid with seemingly no worries, even if it was the dreaded 80s, a period that I’m more happy to put in the rearview mirror the more time goes on. Now all these years later there are those days when I have lots of worries that result in watching a movie on a lazy weekend afternoon, when I really should be doing something more valuable with my time, and I find myself gladly, willingly revisiting that state of mind. Of course, there is no better use of time on a weekend afternoon than watching a movie. You see, it’s a conundrum. And maybe it’s one that I hope I never figure out.