Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hardbodies



HARDBODIES
(R, Columbia Pictures, 87 mins., theatrical release date: May 4, 1984)

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My name is John Bishop, and I like Hardbodies.

The early 1980s sex comedy is one of the least reputable genres in existence, second only to slasher movies in its ridiculous prolificacy at the time. Both were very cheap to make, required no star power, relied on the basest of audience-baiting elements, and were released in such assembly-line succession that it was almost unbelievable that there were any other types of movies in theatres at all. Once the Canadian production Porky's passed the $100,000,000 mark in America alone, all bets were off as to the next big trend in cash-in cinema. And while not all youth-oriented fare was necessarily disposable, what with movies like WarGames, Risky Business and Sixteen Candles on the horizon, the screens were dominated by the hedonistic antics of moronic teen boys to the point where even National Lampoon's Animal House was like some wistful summer fling in the mind.

Nostalgia plays a large part in the story lines and audience identification of films like Porky's, The Last American Virgin, Losin' It, and others. Video rentals, cable airings and burgeoning superstars allowed for cult audiences to grow around these titles. And I am not immune myself, because having grown up consuming VHS tapes and the USA Network fervently, Mark Griffith's 1984 romp Hardbodies was inescapable. It was the definitive Beach Party incarnation of this comedic subgenre, even more so than the official Frankie & Annette reunion film Back to the Beach from a few years later. And aside from its sandy, surf-and-turf scenery, there was another reason Hardbodies stood out from the pack...

BOOBIES!

Glory be, there was more exposed areola in this one film alone than any handful of these movies combined. This is also the skinniest sex comedy of its era, as virtually every female cast member is rendered topless to the degree where you imagine Southern California as one of the premier nudist colonies in your head. And the weirdest thing about Hardbodies is...it's shameless in ways that go beyond critical condemnation. There is a curious, consistent innocence to the proceedings and, most refreshingly, a clear absence of malice and lack of pretension that even the film's marketing campaign played to the hilt.

Back when Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert devoted an entire episode to the teenage sex comedy in 1983, the duo were equally appalled by the misogyny inherent in most of these films. They wondered why boys and girls weren't allowed to develop convincing friendships, metaphorically likened these conquests to dartboard games and chided the familiar trope of the boys having to pay hookers for sexual knowledge instead of indulging their curiosity with their significant others. More so than they did with their rather hysterical "Women in Danger" expose, the veteran critics did make some valid, grounded points. Immaturity became equated with flagrant imbecility all too often, and none of these movies gave their female characters any real identity other than love/lust object.

When it came time to talk about Hardbodies, though, here was a movie which they lumped right in with its mindless forebears despite some clear strides made in the handling of these stories. Keep in mind a product designed originally for Playboy Televsion was never truly going to rise above the typical male glut of soft-core sexcapades. But here was a movie which did not exactly devote itself to the
degradation of female sexuality, and sure enough has plenty of humorous exchanges between the equally promiscuous genders. One of my all-time favorite lines from the entire sex comedy bandwagon occurs when Carlton Ashby (Sorrells Pickard), a middle-aged cowpoke with a fortune in the fertilizer industry, stimulates aerobics instructor Michelle (Kristi Somers) to the point of arousal:

Michelle: "Robert E. Lee."
Ashby: "Ma'am?"
Michelle: "Well, you remind me of Robert E. Lee. I like to nickname my men before I f--- them."
Ashby: "Just like that? Whatever became of romance?"
Michelle: "Why, Ashby, darling...You want romance? Go read a novel. You want me? I'm upstairs."

Rarely does a movie like this get recognized as genuinely witty, but Hardbodies makes more of an effort than most of its ilk. Michelle is a smart, spunky, sexy character who remains Ashby's steady despite bearing more stamina than the burnt-out Southerner, a colloquial chap who gripes that his liver is "staging a major coup d'etat" in the midst of a dawning hangover. Ashby himself proves quite a catch with his uncomplicated, good-humored demeanor. They make swell company for 90 minutes is what I'm trying to say, which is the deal-maker for me as far as I'm concerned.

And that is Hardbodies in a nutshell, which proves that aiming for the lowest common denominator doesn't always have be so miserable. Principal character Scotty Palmer (Grant Cramer), self-appointed "head of the Geek Patrol," is a scam artist who champions a sense of community among the female species and has a healthy, sexually-active love affair with a brunette bunny named Kristi (Teal Roberts), who is impressionable but not wholly idiotic. The key to his success is to "dialogue" the women, steering clear of antiquated one-liners and instead flirting with candor and style. On the opposite end are three vacationing squares: Ashby, the bluntly-named Rounder (Michael Rapport) and the even more on-the-nose Hunter (Gary Wood), the alpha of the over-the-hill trio. Their efforts to chat up young women routinely end in humiliation ("I don't f--- fossils for free"). When Scotty falls three months behind in back rent and is duly evicted, the geezers entice him to become a mentor (read: definitely not a pimp) in exchange for walking money and a more luxurious place to live for the time being.

Cue the obligatory array of pick-up montages, house parties and pratfalls, with Ashby emerging as the clear victor amongst the gang. Hunter proves a bit too reliant on spilling wine on girls' dresses to get them to disrobe, whereas Rounder bluffs himself into snapping bogus modeling photos for a gaggle of overly eager babes. Since this is Scotty's brilliant idea, Kristi rightfully blows him off out of frustration, but forgives him in time for a quintuple date at the club owned by body-building guru and potential business partner Rocco (special appearance by Antony Ponzini).

Alas, the morning after proves troublesome when Scotty intervenes on behalf of secretly coy exhibitionist Candy (Crystal Shaw) after she's manhandled by the lecherous Hunter, who retaliates by zeroing in on Kristi. Candy's confessional moment, in which she breaks down over the negative stigmas associated with being sexually curious, feels more natural and sweet-hearted than one may expect. Things wrap up in a marijuana-fueled haze and several embarrassing comeuppances for "Hunter's orgy gang," which Ashby indignantly refuses to be part of.

The trouble with most of these 1980s sex comedies is that they exist in such a moral vacuum that when it comes time to sermonize, such concessions to ethics come across as disingenuous and equally dumb. Hardbodies finds a consistent tone which the flagrantly bitter The Last American Virgin failed to exhibit, mostly due to the fact that it doesn't hold its characters in outright contempt. Even nominal antagonist Hunter displays enough integrity at the beginning to turn down underage sex before he goes full-on capitalist cretin. Add to that several endearing performances from both sexes and equal time for amiable introspection both girl-on-girl and guy-on-guy, which leavens the kitsch with considerable soul and wisdom.

Hardbodies still finds room for plenty of below-the-belt humor, with the most obvious being when Rounder takes a few blows to his "love nuts" and the most clever during a triple-intercourse montage wherein Ashby interprets oral sex by playing a heightened flamenco rhythm on his acoustic guitar, climaxing in a sudden breaking of strings. Even the persistently gratuitous nudity is not as vehemently irresponsible as most people give it discredit for. If there is a curious lack of variety in regards to the women (by tradition, Hardbodies exists in the same white bread world as the rest of the teen sex comedy genre), then at least one won't forget the sight of one of Roscoe's buff beauties performing a playful tease in view of the slovenly Rounder. Even Grant Cramer isn't too shy amongst the male cast to go the full monty.

Cramer, who would go on to camp up his lothario persona here in Killer Klowns from Outer Space, proves effortlessly likeable in the lead role. The fictional garage band Diaper Rash (whose set list includes such gems as "Computer Madness," "Mr. Cool" and "Give it a Chance") is filled in by the lady rockers of Vixen, who enjoyed late-blooming success in the 1980s hair metal scene with the Richard Marx composition "Edge of a Broken Heart." And aside from Roberts, Shaw and Somers, B-movie fans ought to enjoy seeing several name cult actresses amongst its cast, including Kathleen Kinmont (Renegade), Darcy De Moss (Reform School Girls) and the late Roberta Collins (Death Race 2000) as Kristi's estate-selling older sister Lana. And yet, even with all of these lovelies, it is both Sorrells Pickard as the easygoing Ashby and Courtney Gains as the dweebish Rag who help make this a not-so-guilty pleasure. Already fresh from his mutinous, menacing debut as Malachai from Children of the Corn, Gains particularly appears to be having the time of his life in more comical surroundings; not everyone can flip off people in 48 different languages, dress in unflattering drag or fondle a grossly-realized pair of fake DDs with as much enthusiasm as him.

I can't in good faith give this movie even a four-star rating, simply because it is very tacky and tasteless in ways that often times have little to show other than skin. The appearance of a noxious bunch of fart-lighting morons (including an unflattering early role for stuntman/horror icon Kane Hodder) who turn from nemeses to accomplices rings false and proves more uncomfortable than the admittedly queasy-making antics of the three "fossils." This is a fantasy of mid-life crisis in which the audience is expected to be on the side of a bunch of old bulls. At least those had affluent voices of reason sounded by Ashby, Kristi and her best friend Kimberly (Cindy Silver), who finally comes around to making love with the long-suffering but noble Rag out of genuine solidarity.

"Genuine solidarity," two words I've always wanted to use in describing a dopey sex comedy but never had the chance to. Shouldn't good sex arise from good vibes, the kind which the vast majority of 1980s movies mostly demonized? Oh, Hardbodies...I give in. You are that rare sex-related 1980s film that inspires people to want to have actual sex. Just like Candy, you really don't deserve the ditzy rep you have gotten over the years. I guess you'll always be my bigger, better deal.




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