Sunday, August 25, 2019
To Hook Up The Doll
Whatever crush I had on Molly Ringwald back in the day ended long ago but I follow her on Twitter for old times’ sake and was very pleased to see her 2018 New Yorker piece where she looked back at the films she made with John Hughes to confront certain plot points in them which, to be blunt, have aged about as well as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Acknowledging such things are necessary, particularly since people out there are presumably showing these films to their kids but as for the films themselves I’m not sure how passionate I am about them. To be honest, I lost interest in high school about 48 hours after graduating from high school so revisiting THE BREAKFAST CLUB or FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF never holds much interest for me. The freewheeling all-in-one-night aspect to SIXTEEN CANDLES can still be fun although I can’t ignore that film’s problematic aspects nor do I want to. I still have a fondness for the Howard Deutch-directed PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL in theory even considering how they mirror each other but, in truth, I haven’t seen either one of those in years.
Coming in the middle of all this, WEIRD SCIENCE is just about the silliest of this group and the one most detached from any sort of reality, so much so that it almost overrides whatever issues there might be with the plot of inventing a gorgeous woman as plaything. Not that it makes any difference now but it’s the only one of these films that I’ve never seen in a theater; released by Universal in early August ’85, I was trapped in summer camp up in Maine at the time and it must have already left the local multiplexes by the time I got back. Looking at it now, WEIRD SCIENCE seems to represent a moment when Hughes let his attention wander away from Ringwald and PRETTY IN PINK notwithstanding never seems to have entirely gone back. Maybe instead of a muse he wanted an alter ego and that’s where his interests led him. WEIRD SCIENCE is maybe too slight to be offended by but as a full movie maybe there’s just not enough there. It does present the idea of a teenage weekend where everything goes right thanks to a fantasy woman who shows you the way and even now I can kind of relate to that as a daydream while still being very aware that maybe there’s nothing wrong with leaving this movie back in the 80s.
Teenage outcasts Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), whose parents are out of town for the weekend, are doing nothing on Friday night when Gary gets an idea to use Wyatt’s computer to make a girl, an actual girl. Miraculously this somehow works and the beautiful Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) appears in his doorway, ready to do whatever they want. And she wastes no time upending their lives but soon Lisa’s real agenda to makes their lives better, to give these boys a shot at becoming men, becomes clear and even as Wyatt has to deal with bullying older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) the two of them see a chance to win over the girls of their dreams and throw the greatest party the town has ever seen.
The key image of the film, not counting any shot which contains Kelly LeBrock, might be the two guys with bras on their heads which could be seen as a metaphor for the teenage male trying to find a way into the female psyche but on the other hand it could just be typical John Hughes immaturity. Looking at WEIRD SCIENCE now is a reminder that what John Hughes could do was write scripts that might have actually come from real high school students (most likely male) if they really knew how to write them. They’re slight, they’re goofy, they’re immature even as they reach for deeper themes and in many ways they’re fearless which allows them to capture something about the feeling of being a suburban teen in an affluent suburb that many other such films haven’t. For a film set over the course of a weekend—36 hours, really—it feels a little like WEIRD SCIENCE took just as long to write, which considering some of the stories about how Hughes cranked out things during this period may not be far from the truth. It’s a weekend movie that feels like it was written over a weekend but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It doesn’t even have the briefest time span of these Hughes films but it does feel like the slightest of any of them with even the big party, which you couldn’t be blamed for remembering as the climax, kicking off before the film is even half over. In broad strokes, it’s a story about two guys maturing due to the guidance of a woman but also how clueless you can be when fantasy unexpectedly becomes reality and only you can decide what’s going to happen next.
Coming out during the same summer as other teens-and-science movies like REAL GENIUS and MY SCIENCE PROJECT (Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS sort of counts, to say nothing of BACK TO THE FUTURE), more than anything WEIRD SCIENCE plays right from the start as a much goofier RISKY BUSINESS, maybe the closest Hughes came to that other Chicago teen film, combined with the wish fulfillment aspect of this woman willing to do anything with powers that are never clarified but so what, but is really there to turn the boys into men just not the way you’re thinking. All of this works as well as it does thanks partly to the sheer energy of the leads but the slapdash nature of it all means that it doesn’t have too many plot ideas beyond the big party. The way the high school kids are paired up from the leads to the girls they’re going after as well as the bullies played by Robert Downey (Jr.) and Robert Rusler all against the singular force that is Lisa feel like a set of parallels that a more fleshed out concept could have done something with, particularly since Downey and Rusler basically disappear by a certain point. When Lisa takes Gary and Wyatt to a sketchy bar downtown it’s actually not a bad idea as a comment on how sheltered kids are up in the suburbs but the whole sequence feels a little random coming so soon in the film and the racial element plays like leftover ANIMAL HOUSE material combined with some half-baked improv. John Kapelos, who gets the immortal line “What’s a beautiful broad like you doing with a malaka like this?”, is always welcome in these movies and if Hughes had written ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (he didn’t, you just think he did) I’d call this a very rough draft of the club scene in that film. But as usual this is very much set in the affluent white Chicago suburban Hughes world of Shermer, Illinois, with less screen time in the actual high school than the other films but we can get a taste of what it’s like. It feels just as segregated as ever with the brief glimpse of the one tough-looking, somewhat androgynous girl at the end of a line of guys ogling Lisa about as progressive as this world ever gets.
It feels like the future according to this film is computers and a colorized version of FRANKENSTEIN although it seems a little curious that they’re not watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but never mind. “I want her to live, I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize,” Gary tells Wyatt as Lisa is created and it’s a film where all logic is sent spiraling into outer space but as much as Hughes has no interest in rationality here, LeBrock somehow grounds it. From Lisa’s very first line she gets the tone and even finds an emotional logic to every scene, possessing no inner life—hell, nobody in this movie has an inner life—but she also never hesitates for a moment in what she does, pushing the guys into taking command of their situation as they bounce off her in scenes displaying disbelief although oddly, even though Hall was the star at the time he doesn’t get the big kissing scene with her. Parents are more irrelevant than usual in Hughes’ films this time out and Gary’s are a joke but one bit near the very end where Wyatt’s returning dad declines a hug has a surprisingly plausible edge in the middle of all this, another of those fathers trying to turn their sons into men in the most toxic way. The stuff with the grandparents showing up works pretty well, especially the line about “the Rex Harrison hat” even though the movie totally forgets about them too and when the film goes vaguely near T&A material with the girl at the party who gets her clothes ripped off when things go haywire and hurled out of the chimney I wonder how much of the slightly skeezy vibe can be attributed to producer Joel Silver (this was the only time Hughes and Silver worked together; a Silver-produced remake announced in 2013 has yet to happen). But even the girlfriends, mostly presented as insecure and confused in wondering why they’re with any of these guys to begin with, are still kind of playthings to be bartered over as well as rescued which turns out to mean more than simply having the courage to talk to them ever would.
There’s still a definite conservative streak to the whole thing and maybe another film might have tried to play games over whether or not anything ever really happened between Lisa and the two guys. Even back in 1955 it was only the production code that kept Tom Ewell from sleeping with Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, after all. It maybe feels more finely honed production-wise than SIXTEEN CANDLES but that film had better jokes as well as Molly Ringwald at the center and there are maybe a few too many shots here of the guys standing, staring incredulously at whatever’s happening. It moves so fast at the start, jumping into things as quickly as possible with the whole creation montage that makes no sense but who cares helped by that incessantly bouncy Ira Newborn music but it’s still pretty thin and when the movie hits the hour mark even though I know what’s coming I still wonder how there’s actually 30 minutes left to go. Broader than the other Hughes-directed films during this period it’s loaded with throwaway gags tossed into the frame like Hall drinking Coke from a brandy snifter but just as many of those jokes fall flat, another thing that makes it all feel a little tossed together so the mayhem doesn’t quite hit a peak.
A few Frank Tashlin-style sight gags as the party spirals out of control along with the missile that emerges from the floor to stick out of the chimney makes it seem like the movie could have gone crazier and even the blocking in the big confrontation with the bikers who invade the party is pretty dull as if they had no real time to shoot it. But more often than not the film maintains a sense of looseness through its rush to have almost nothing of actual consequence happen and some actors even visibly break character in one scene, smiling during some Bill Paxton antics near the end but it’s the sort of film where this isn’t a big deal. Mainly, it’s a movie about overcoming fear and trying to find the real person in an illusion, a lonely Friday night fantasy of what you wish could happen over a weekend before going back to school. Plus the title song by Oingo Boingo is pretty great. The film was released in August and even though I didn’t see it then, it’s a dog days of summer movie that’s a product of a more innocent time. Nothing wrong with revisiting, of course, I just never want to stay there.
It’s so broad that if it was a movie with more naturalistic performances it wouldn’t work and unlike his character Anthony Michael Hall seems up for trying anything; no reaction is too big and his acting style becomes the equivalent of the fearlessness in Hughes’ writing. With Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who starred in the Cameron Crowe-scripted THE WILD LIFE the previous year) as Wyatt, the charm is in always looking like he might start cracking up at his friend even when he’s supposed to be upset so the relaxed vibe bounces off him nicely and he even gets a sly fourth wall break. Kelly LeBrock is confident, loose and seemingly up for anything as Lisa, always working the frame that she’s in so no one pays attention to anyone else and using the commanding tone of her voice to full advantage, as if always daring the younger guys to take command of a scene they’re in together.
The forever awesome Bill Paxton almost steals the movie as Wyatt’s brother Chet, going even bigger than Anthony Michael Hall if that’s possible and doing things to contort his face that are still mesmerizing and finding the joy in this prick that Robert Downey and Robert Rusler never do as their bullies who aren’t as much fun in their assholishness. Boy, I miss Bill Paxton. Suzanne Snyder, who went on to play two separate roles on SEINFELD and Judie Aronson, who appeared again with Robert Downey, Jr. as “Gift Bag Girl” in KISS KISS BANG BANG, have a sincerity to their scenes which comes off as genuinely likable and their bits together have a genuine chemistry that makes the friendship seem totally real in the middle of all this. Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and Michael Berryman of THE HILLS HAVE EYES are a few of the mutant bikers who invade the party while the perfume salesgirl is played by Jill Whitlow who one year later starred in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, a film Suzanne Snyder had a small part in which always gave the impression the two had switched places for some reason.
WEIRD SCIENCE was released only six months after THE BREAKFAST CLUB and maybe it makes perfect sense to follow that one with a movie which is pretty much its total opposite in tone but it does feel like the genuine sensitivity that people have always responded to in John Hughes’ films, for better and also for worse, is a little absent this time out. It wasn’t the hit that some of his other films of the period were although it actually did slightly better than SIXTEEN CANDLES just over a year earlier. Go figure, but of course it has the expected cult following these days. WEIRD SCIENCE was also the last Hughes film to feature Anthony Michael Hall, which is still surprising maybe since we just assumed at the time there would be lots more and feels like what we remember about the 80s was already starting to fall apart halfway through the decade. Maybe the filmmaker’s biggest hits were still to come but it’s as if the things people responded to in them as well as the looseness they had which feels so rare these days (SUPERBAD comes to mind) was lost along the way. There’s never any reason to think all that much about WEIRD SCIENCE, a film that doesn’t really ask you to anyway. It has its charms but strains a little too much to get there and maybe isn’t really worth defending all these years later. Guess I still have to think about it anyway, whether it’s because I missed it at the time or because I never had a weekend like this one in my own suburb. Of course, eventually you have to move on.