Archive for category comedy

Hughes #7 – Weird Science (1985)

My computer errors just give me the blue screen of death.

The Story

Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) are teen geeks in Shermer, Illinois, sex-obsessed but with zero prospects. One night, the boys think to create a female computer sim, hoping to ask her about sex or to write her into sick, demented situations to see what she’ll do (really). Instead of just creating a new A.L.I.C.E. bot, their simulation somehow summons a hurricane, breaks the internet, and conjures a magical woman named Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) whose only desire is to fulfill all of theirs. Lisa is ready for sex, but decides to set the boys up for popularity long term instead, throwing a huge party for them which is wrecked, of course, by the nightmares inherent in magic science (nuclear warheads and mutant bikers.) The boys confront the bikers, earn the school’s respect, and win girlfriends. Her work done, Lisa leaves the boys so she can take a job as a highly inappropriate gym teacher.

pictured: a gym teacher

The Production

In the early 1980s, Hollywood mega-producer Joel Silver acquired the film rights to all titles published under the banner of EC Comics. EC (the ‘E’ stands for Entertaining) thrived during the 1950s, specializing in genre anthology books back when you could actually write comic stories with no superheroes without losing your shirt. EC’s diverse catalog included Tales from the Crypt, Mad Magazine, and a lesser known title called Weird Science. Silver approached John Hughes about developing these titles into features, and Hughes eagerly accepted. Hughes had grown up on EC books and was keen on adapting Weird Science for teens.

“I made this woman, but will she get along with the other kitchen appliances?”

Hughes wrote the script for Weird Science in a brisk two days, hanging his story loosely on “Made of the Future,” a story from the comic that revolved around a robot woman. Hughes shot Weird Science immediately after his smash hit, The Breakfast Club, casting Club star Anthony Michael Hall in his third straight film for Hughes. Although Hall would take the lead role in a Hughes picture for the first time—and pass up the chance to reprise his role as Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation—this would be the last film Hall would do for Hughes.

The Soundtrack

To match the film’s frantic tone, Hughes filled the movie with catchy, synthesized tracks from new wave and alt-pop gods like Killing Joke and Wall of Voodoo, but the standout is the title song by the band Oingo Boingo (featuring Danny Elfman, just a few years before he locked eyes with Tim Burton from across the party and left pop music behind forever, even though pop music had been totally good to him and he’d never find anyone better in the big city.). “Weird Science” is an infectious tune—all ‘80s—and cobbled together from references to the classic mad-scientist movies that Weird Science longs to be. The song is so intertwined with the film that its power continues to grow even today; as contracts expire and the film loses music rights, the easy fix is to add more “Weird Science” (for example, the finale once used the Rocky theme as its audio exit joke, but the rights are gone, and so on DVD today? Science!)

The Misfit

Gary and Wyatt are the nerdy misfits that should be harassing the lead in another Hughes movie, so they require a special kind of misfit to bedevil them, and one of their creation: Lisa, the super computer magic genie sex goddess. Although supposedly the girl of their dreams, Lisa is more like the girl of their id, continuously daring the boys to man up, slap their superego down, and lose their pants when showering with someone who looks like Kelly LeBrock. Their digital “dream girl” terrorizes Wyatt’s grandparents, pulls a gun on Gary’s parents, and nearly unleashes science-fueled Armageddon on small town Shermer, Illinois, all in the name of making the boys a few friends. The residents of a quiet Earth can be thankful the boys didn’t think to ask for unlimited power, or else the nerds would rule the world.

Oh… right.

Cavity-Inducing Moment

Weird Science is mostly free of sugar-coating; its one supposedly “sweet” scene is less syrupy than deeply disturbing. On her first night of life, Lisa, who you’ll recall was literally created for sex, provides alcohol for Wyatt, gently makes out with him, and then takes him to bed (although it’s later revealed that Wyatt is too drunk to succeed.) Sweet? OK, now replace Wyatt with a 15-year-old girl and switch LeBrock with 1980s Patrick Swayze, his rock-hard abs moist with sweat from all the ass he was just kicking at the Road House. Still sweet? Or something you should get out of your house right fucking now before the Feds arrive?

Overall

A few movies exist that, in order to really love them, you just had to be there. By “there,” I mean that a person had to be the right age, in the right year, and seeing the film at the right time. For example, Superman and Superman II have never done a thing for me. I saw them too late in my life and for me they’re just silly and dull. For other people, The Goonies is a terrible, possibly offensive film, but one that I happen to love because I saw it at the right age. You can guess where I’m going with this when I say that I had never seen Weird Science before starting this Project. Wherever and whenever I had to be to like it, I wasn’t there.

“Uh-huh. Can we see the gym teacher again?”

Weird Science is supposedly a fluffy, safe teenage comedy about two undersexed nerds shaking off their geek stink to get the girls and a life, all with the help of a GUI Mary Poppins who offers her ample breasts in place of a spoonful of sugar. Unfortunately, I can’t find that movie. Sure, there are mutant bikers and rancid troglodytes and Robert Downy, Jr. and that guy who had his face burned off in Babylon 5 wearing bras on their heads, but there’s some real weirdness going on here, and it ain’t the science.

Let’s skip right past the movie’s magical internet, which looks like the Lawnmower Man’s screensaver and can supposedly create living flesh from nothing by being turned up to 11. I’m ignoring that. It’s “weird.” I get it. No, what’s really unusual to me is how nobody suggests that—like Alfonso Cuaron’s teen heroes in Y tu mama tambien, who Gary and Wyatt most remind me of—maybe all the boys really need is each other. Like many of John Hughes’ heroes, the boys live in a world removed of authority (Gary’s parents have only a token appearance and forget their son at the wiggle of Lisa’s nose ), and so they cling to each other, spending every waking (and sleeping) minute together, mostly boasting to each other about how straight and horny they are, working each other into a sexual lather that literally creates another person to contain it. By the time Lisa shows up, programmed with pedophilia, she’s the least sexually awkward figure in the room.

Wait, Wyatt doesn’t have a sister, where did he get…? Are those his mom’s bras?

Don’t mistake me, I’m not arguing that this subtext hurts the movie. In fact, several films have been greatly improved by searching for their hidden meanings, intentional or otherwise (I’m looking at you, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2). The problem is that there isn’t enough movie here to hold all of these impulses together. Hughes went too broad once again, an urge that also betrayed him in Curly Sue and in his late-career kiddie films. He made the choice here to  reconfigure the comic’s Outer Limits-like morality stories into a frenzied fantasy entry into the 80s teen sex genre, which had kick-started just a few years earlier with Bob Clark’s Porky’s. The good news for Hughes is that, despite my 2010 eyes finding what probably isn’t there, he still pushed all the right buttons for 1985. The film was a huge success, made tons of fans, and today is warmly remembered as one of the highlights of his career. Again, right place, right time.

And whose doll is that, exactly?

The bad news is that Weird Science hasn’t aged as well as the other Hughes’ films, and Hughes’ films haven’t aged particularly well. Without the comforting haze of nostalgia, all I can happily take away from the film is LeBrock’s fiery, sexually empowered performance and a fleeting glimpse of Bill Paxton (as Wyatt’s brother, Chet) on the cusp of becoming a star. Otherwise, all I see is a bunch of ideas with nowhere to go, and too many truly awful moments (the blues bar, the gun-pulling incident at Gary’s house, the mutant bikers) to give the film’s subtext something to hang on to. In the end, the film is just too… too… weird.

The John Hughes Project

6. ???

7. Weird Science

8. Curly Sue

Advertisements

7 Comments

Hughes #8 – Curly Sue (1991)

Awwww is the new Ewwww.

The Story

Homeless rambler Bill Dancer (Jim Belushi) loses his date after a one-night stand, but inherits her baby girl. Nine years later, Bill and the girl, Sue (Alisan Porter), blow into Chicago to run a few simple cons in search of a meal. Bill and Sue fake an automobile accident to grift cash from the driver, a lawyer named Grey (Kelly Lynch), but Grey surprises the family by taking them in. Sue’s charm warms Grey’s heart, but Grey’s asshole boyfriend reports Bill to child services to get him out of the way. Sue lands in foster care, but Grey rescues her by pushing through an emergency adoption. Bill, free of responsibility for Sue, thinks of hitting the open road, but decides to stick around, romance Grey, and remain Sue’s father.

Lawyers dig this.

The Production

To date, I haven’t found a single production note for Curly Sue anywhere in print or on the internet. It’s as if the movie simply arrived in theatres one day, fully formed and thick with the stench of sulfur, or, considering the film’s tone, the smell of kitten breath and dolphin snuggles. All I can tell you for certain is that the movie exists, John Hughes wrote and directed it, and that star Alisan Porter was a Star Search singing sensation at age five, a fact that reportedly convinced Hughes to include the scene where she belts out the national anthem.

Also, Steve Carell made his film debut here with the silent role of Tesio, the jerky waiter.

A star is born.

The Soundtrack

Hughes had an excellent ear for music, but just as he rarely wrote scripts as insipid and empty as Curly Sue, he was due for a few missteps on the soundtrack. Although Hughes deftly matched the charms of his precocious child star with loose, jazzy classics like “Yacht Club Swing” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”, he also succumbed to his weakness for The Beatles, allowing Ringo Starr to close the film with this tune:

“You Never Know” has the same DNA as the movie: it’s soft, limp, and forgettable. The song is a cliché hunk of bad cheese, so blandly affable that the viewer can close their eyes and imagine the film’s characters walking in step, arm-in-arm, sharing “hilarious” Chicago misadventures, which is pretty much exactly how the film actually ends. The music matches the movie—fair–but solid music choices could have helped the movie. This one nearly makes it worse.

The Misfit

Early Hughes films kept the misfit close to the hero without handing over the reigns, a rule he had abandoned by the time he filmed Curly Sue. Here, the title misfit is also the film’s comic relief, emotional core, and marketing centerpiece. Sue’s grinning mug is the sun the rest of the film’s scattered elements orbit. Is a joke not working? Cut to a Sue smile. Are Belushi and Lynch flopping as a couple? Cue Sue’s rascally wisecrack. Given another half decade, Sue might have grown up into a darling outsider—imagine The Breakfast Club’s Claire if she could hotwire a car like Bender—but instead she’s stuck in this movie, trying to keep the film afloat by spitting big girl dialogue out of her little girl mouth. The result is a terminal case of the cutes.

Cavity-Inducing Moment

Chicago foster care in the world of Curly Sue is a Dickensian nightmare where Sue is shuffled into an anonymous batch of kids and has her spirit–represented by her unruly hair–chopped off at the root. Try to keep your eyes dry when Sue scoots up to her bunk window one snowy eve to gaze longingly at the city. She’s probably choking back a rendition of “Somewhere Out There” as an act of mercy to an audience running low on hankies.

“No, that’s OK, mister. I’d get sick if I ate every day. *coff, coff*”

Overall

One depressing, if obvious, fact about countdowns is that they never start with something good. Even when working with an acknowledged cine-ninja like Stanley Kubrick, I must first admit the existence of a mind-turd like Fear and Desire before getting to the goods. Every Project has at least one or two complete wastes of time, usually either from a director’s early days, or from the end of his career when his audience and peak moment have left him. Curly Sue suffers from exactly the opposite problem. Instead of Hughes’ teens leaving him behind in the 80s, Sue is evidence that Hughes is the one who left them, choosing instead to run full speed in the other direction.

Reviewing Curly Sue is difficult because of how aggressively uninspiring it is. I imagine the process is a lot like a hardcore foodie trying to review a plain block of tofu—it can be done, but only at great risk of coma for all involved. I’ve searched the movie carefully, looking for something, anything, interesting to say. There’s nothing here even worth getting mad about.

Unless you’re a democrat.

How did this movie get made? Hughes obviously liked the project or he would have shoved it off to some journeyman to shoot. Belushi and Porter probably saw the film as a step up in their careers. Google suggests that there are still Curly Sue superfans out there, and there was even mild chatter about a franchise reboot (really?) in the wake of Hughes’ passing. Somebody, somewhere, is passionate about this movie, which strikes me as a uniquely one-sided and quixotic pursuit, because the movie doesn’t even pretend to give any passion back.

Unfortunately, the film’s failure lies squarely at the feet of Hughes who, after making his name with teen movies and proving surprisingly adept at adult comedy with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, inexplicably reversed course, abandoned his aging audience, shot right past the teens, and took another shot at the playground crowd. Seemingly inspired by Macauley Culkin’s star turn as a deadpan sadist in Hughes’ Uncle Buck and Home Alone, Hughes turned his typewriter over completely to kiddie scripts, cranking out such uncharacteristic dreck as the Home Alone sequels, Baby’s Day Out, and Dennis the Menace. If Home Alone was a diversion from his usual style, Curly Sue was the advance warning that the kid stuff was here to stay.

Here’s the problem with that: Hughes wrote for the fences. In each of his films, even the successes, Hughes wrote to go big or go home. He loved to work with familiar, broad characters struggling with universal dilemmas, which may have seemed like an easy fit for the family genre. The catch is that Hughes’ pages also bled with overwrought angst, which works fine for teen movies–teens are raw nerves to begin with, and they’re drawn to their own scent—but it’s a formula that doesn’t work with the under-10 crowd or with comedies about the homeless with Jim Belushi getting hit by a car.

Twice.

No, the angst had to go and, looking for some other emotion to cling to, Hughes turned to earnestness. Everything in Curly Sue is pitched at the extremes. For example, Grey isn’t just cold, she’s the Wicked Witch of the East Side, a woman who cruelly advocates gutting the enemy in a divorce case because, well, it’s evil, and evil got her the corner office. She’s sheltered enough that chili dogs are alien contraptions and 3D movies are hallucinatory mindfucks. And yet, despite her arch and total wrongness, her heart instantly melts and she falls for homeless Jim Belushi because, what, the kid is cute? It’s too easy.

This has never happened in the history of 3D movies.

The kid is cute, though, no doubt. Porter does what she’s asked and the character is surprisingly likable, but she deserves a better movie, as does Belushi who has seemingly used Sue as the template for every mugging, saccharine project that he’s attached his name to since. (He’s clearly capable of handling heavy material when he given a chance; just look at his small, memorable role in Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Can someone convince Tarantino or Rodriguez to cast Belushi in a reclamation project, please? If we can save Jeff Fahey, surely we can save this man.)

Actually, I think that’s my biggest problem with Curly Sue. The film should be heavier than it is, but Hughes’s script is totally uninterested in exploring the plot for anything beyond the most basic and lazy heart-tugging. Sue is precocious and pixie-like, in the face of what has to be years of persistent malnutrition. Bill Dancer really is a questionable guardian for Sue; the movie never bothers to suggest that she might actually be better off in foster care. I know that I shouldn’t be so concerned about the plot implications of a lesser John Hughes comedy, but he’s the one who chose these characters and situations and put them out there for me to consider. He knew that there was a dark side to his story, but he whitewashed over it in favor of winks and grins and belly-shaking good times. Since none of that actually arrived, forgive me if I overthink what’s left. I have to stay awake somehow.

The John Hughes Project

7. ???

8. Curly Sue

3 Comments

Kubrick #1 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The movie that taught the world not to fight in the war room.

The Film: A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) hatches a plan to nuke Russia in preemptive defense of his precious bodily fluids. President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and defected German scientist Dr. Strangelove (all played by Peter Sellers) scramble to call back the bombers, but Ripper’s plan is foolproof and, worse, it’s likely to trigger a Russian doomsday device that will destroy the world. A combined American/Soviet effort brings down most of the planes, but nuclear peace is narrowly averted by the brave efforts of Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) personally riding a bomb down to its target. As the leaders await the end, they hatch rival plans to become the undisputed world power of underground bomb shelters.

Pictured: an opportunity

The Production: The early 1960s was a weird time. The end of the human race never seemed closer than it did in the first few years of the decade, and yet new sexual and civil freedoms brought hope to young people who had otherwise lived their lives ducking and covering in school hallways. In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kubrick—riding the surprise success of his supposedly toxic project, Lolita—acquired the rights to the novel Red Alert by Peter George, a serious thriller about the flaws inherent in automated nuclear war. Unfortunately, Kubrick ran into problems adapting the screenplay; the situation was too damn absurd.

Kubrick felt that the real Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction was, to put it mildly, incredibly stupid, so he shifted Red Alert onto an entirely different track, where it became a dark satire. Columbia Pictures, eager to stay in the Kubrick business but nervous about the film’s tone, agreed to handle the picture only if Kubrick could convince Peter Sellers to play the leads—all of them (the studio believed Sellers had been the major draw for Lolita.) Sellers signed on to play four roles, but he had to abandon the part of Major Kong when he sprained his ankle and couldn’t fit in the pilot’s seat. Slim Pickens took over.

And he did his own stunts, may he rest in peace.

President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas delayed Dr. Strangelove for months and hindered its box office. Since its release, however, Strangelove has been universally embraced by frikkin’ everybody. Many (including this writer) consider Strangelove to be Kubrick’s best film and possibly one of the greatest films of the last ever. And he did it without the pie fight finale.

Best Moment: Peter Sellers made his millions playing lunatics—there’s a reason this film is called Dr. Strangelove and not Lionel Mandrake—but the actor spent much of his career trying to squash this stereotype and find success as a complete performer, not just as a living cartoon. Sellers was an equally talented straight man, as he proves in his phone call to the unseen (and drunk) Russian premier. This is probably one of the funniest scenes in all the movies.


Lasting Impact: Please. Dr. Strangelove cast the nuclear conflict in a new light and may have played some small part in shifting the conversation away from the saber-rattling of the Red Scare and towards the dramatic peace movement of the late 60s. On a pure movie level, Strangelove invented its own damn genre. Every satirical war movie, from Canadian Bacon to Wag the Dog, to War, Inc., has been slapped with the label of “the new Dr. Strangelove,” which of course they aren’t. The film’s shadow is very wide.

And we haven’t even mentioned the young Darth Vader yet.

Overall: As we’ve discussed, Stanley Kubrick took flak throughout his career for being a fairly bloodless character. His best films came from a place of clinical curiosity, little experiments where he ran his characters through twisted mazes to see how far they’d go for some tiny piece of happiness. Films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange were not strange digressions, but close approximations of how Kubrick really saw the world. Strangelove is different and unlike anything else in Kubrick’s catalog, and not just because it’s hilarious. Not at all. It’s furious.

Great comedy comes from anger, and there is hardly an angrier film anywhere than Dr. Strangelove. The film is a plea from the peasants for some sign of sanity at the top. I don’t think the film’s proximity to the Cuban Missile Crisis can be overstated. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the entire world was hung up between two countries seemingly willing to wipe billions of people from the map rather than lose face in front of the world. Sure, each side made the usual case about white hats and black hats, and we can debate politics forever, but ultimately the planet came within a “Press A” of snuffing out over, basically, a sticky public relations crisis. Two years later, Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is on screen whining about a “mine shaft gap.”

Mine shafts laugh at danger.

So, assuming he’s the “I” in the subtitle, how did Kubrick learn to love the bomb? I think Kubrick decided that, hell, if the world can be taken to the very brink by posturing and bravado, then why not give up your sanity and, like Major Kong, enjoy the ride? This is a movie about grown men measuring their members and calling it war. I mentioned Turgidson above, definitely my favorite character in the film not played by Peter Sellers (who was brilliant in all three of his roles). Observe the way Turgidson squirms and fidgets while President Merkin Muffley (with two names referring, of course, to vaginas) works to call off the war that Ripper started. Turgidson humors the president the same way a football coach might wince at a child asking why he doesn’t throw it at the goal line on every play.

“When you’re dealing with nukes, you can’t play man-to-man, you have to go with a general zone defense. In this case, a zone would be, let’s say… Houston.”

Or what about Ripper, a general willing to go to war because of fluoride in our drinking water, clearly a communist plot to destroy our bodies from within. We laugh now at Kubrick’s absurd invention, forgetting that this was a totally real thing that people thought. And what was the role of women in this war? I mentioned the onset of new sexual and cultural freedoms in the 60s, but it hadn’t yet hit the war room. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only woman in the film is seen in a bikini, with no thoughts or role of her own except to relay information between two men.

Kubrick’s grand finale was intended to be a gigantic pie fight, but I think that may have been a bit too on the nose (why spend the money on all these pies if we’re not going to throw them!?) As it is, he settled for a romantically bittersweet ending in which the bomb, the true protagonist of the film, wins the day.

Also, Peter Sellers just wins in general.

Kubrick never returned to broad comedy. It’s as if dealing with these misfits, facing his dark opinion of human nature, changed him. After Strangelove, his films became increasingly detached, kicking off the second half of his legendary career, from 2001 all the way to the alien and alienating Eyes Wide Shut. Did he burn out his funny bone? Or did confronting these clowns, outsized avatars of the worst of our instincts, push Kubrick that much further away? If there is any truth behind Strangelove’s satire, are we even worth saving? With a planet like this, who could blame Kubrick for falling in love with the end of the world?

The Stanley Kubrick Project

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

3. The Shining

4. Full Metal Jacket

5. A Clockwork Orange

6. Paths of Glory

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: