Friday, March 6, 2015

Peggy Sue Got Married

(PG-13, Tri-Star Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: October 10, 1986)

"I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger," is not just the opening line to the chorus of The Faces' "Ooh La La," but also the thematic undertow of Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. The main difference is that the person asking to turn back time is not a grandson hung up on wicked women, but a soon-to-be-divorcee pondering 25 years of regret on the night of her high school reunion. Peggy Sue Bodell is not keen on walking into a gymnasium full of her old friends who will no doubt question the absence of her one-time prom king Charlie, who grew to inherit his father's appliance store empire and has turned into a pathetic, philandering Crazy Eddie doppelganger.

The attention gets to be overwhelming for her, as does Charlie's inevitable arrival, and as she is re-anointed to be the belle of the ball, Peggy Sue faints into a time warp to the spring of 1960, her senior year at Buchanan High, going from panty hose to bobby socks all over again.

Coppola had flirted with the mainstream on his own terms in the 1980s, chiefly his two S.E. Hinton adaptations (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish) pitched at a trend-setting younger audience in ways that stood out from his adult-oriented '70s masterpieces. This was done to offset the financial ruin stemming from the box-office disaster of One from the Heart, but for many years, Coppola's reputation took a nosedive as one high-profile film after another suffered dismal returns.

Respectable if not bankable, Coppola's misfortune halted in 1986 when his latest for-hire project managed to draw in audiences and critics alike, making both Siskel and Ebert's ten-best lists (they also championed its lead actress in their annual "If We Picked the Winners" special) and grossing more than twice its budget, Coppola's first windfall since Apocalypse Now. Peggy Sue Got Married is a teen movie, too, and one that was easily pegged as a derivative of Back to the Future, what with its timeline-jumping fixation on a distant love affair. Originally developed as the feature debut for Penny Marshall before the producers got cold feet, this is also a precursor to Marshall's later smash Big, which reversed both the character's gender and age trajectory.

And the less said about Coppola's own decade-later Jack, the better.

For a film which hinges on the double-edged sword of hindsight, Peggy Sue Got Married has aged as well as some kind of fruit of the vine you find in bottles, I forget what they call it.

The main charm in Coppola's hands is Kathleen Turner, white-hot on the heels of Body Heat and Romancing the Stone, giving an Oscar-caliber performance which furthered her sophisticated, sensual adult persona with more precise warmth, body language and comic timing than ever before. The familiar complaint of watching obvious grown-ups having to go back to prom dissipates by virtue of self-professed "walking anachronism" Peggy Sue's arc as a mature, experienced soul in a naïve girl's body, making amends and breaking hearts all over again by dint of absolute knowledge. The sting of what lies ahead is tempered by a flurry of tenderness and introspection which doesn't exactly end in a rose-tinted butterfly effect a la Marty McFly's return to Hill Valley 1985, but is subtly deeper and considerably more despairing given the infidelity and shame in the present day.

Luckily, there's still plenty of genuine entertainment and humor to be gleaned from the journey. Take the now-youthful Peggy Sue Kelcher's reunion with her old nuclear family, which is filmed in a delicately belittling tracking shot as she approaches the front porch and deigns to knock nervously on the open door. Upon making herself at home again, Peggy and her kid sister Nancy (Sofia Coppola) watch Dion & The Belmonts performing "A Teenager in Love" on The Dick Clark Beech-Nut Show. "Look at that man," Peggy awes. "He never ages." Nancy grumbles pettily over Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan, reaching for the bowl of M+Ms as big sis tells her to avoid the red ones (because of the amaranth scare). Peggy then calmly goes to her dad's bureau and steals a couple glasses of whiskey: "Oh, what the hell. I'm probably dead, anyway."

Mr. Kelcher (Don Murray) then arrives to surprise his family with his new Edsel, although his inebriated eldest daughter has seen it all before and cackles it off. Dad: "Are you drunk?" Peggy: "Just a little. I had a tough day." He then proceeds to ground her, thus making Peggy more comically belligerent. Her statement of teenage rebellion: "I'm an adult. I want to have fun. I'm going to go [to] Liverpool and discover The Beatles."

And then there's Peggy's future hubby himself, Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage...I'll get to him), waiting for her the very next morning in his big blue '58 Impala.

Enduringly-married screenwriters Jerry Leichtling & Arlene Sarner may not have piqued Coppola's initial interest (he thought it was merely "okay" and no different from a "routine television show"), and their joint career never evolved beyond the promise found herein. Still, the two of them have considerably and carefully mined ample quirk and pathos from what could have been an indiscriminating gagfest. Peggy Sue immediately rebounds from that hilarious episode of disbelief by asserting her independence, calling Charlie's bluff on his three-year plan of outside dating as "comparison shopping" and belting out "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" during the pledge of allegiance to the mortification of her apathetic best friends, Maddy Nagle (Joan Allen) and Carol Heath (Catherine Hicks).

The clash between Peggy's ingrained sense of modern woman's worth and the conformity of her adolescence makes her a bit of a social pariah, although she already extended a hand in friendship to nerdy Richard Norvik (Barry Miller). No one is more taken aback by Peggy's brash personality than Charlie, whose adherence to the male rites of passage are frequently subverted. When necking in the car threatens to blossom into sex, it's Peggy Sue making the moves, leaving Charlie confused and angry. The idealistic doo-wop crooner legitimately loves Peggy, as does she, but she's defensive about both their emotions to Charlie's dejection, as he is bent on stardom and avoiding the callous fate Peggy knows he will fulfill.

Speaking of lost innocence, Peggy Sue Got Married exists in simpler times in terms of its male lead, too. One of Nicolas Cage's breakout roles was as New Wave hunk Randy in Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl from 1983, in which he proved equally intense and charming. It wasn't too long before Cage's knack for Methodic weirdness took over. For Alan Parker's Birdy, which called for him to play a Vietnam soldier whose face was horrendously scarred in a mortar explosion, Cage had a few of his teeth pulled out and would walk off the set in his bandages. From Vampire's Kiss onwards, Cage's idiosyncrasies would define his image, and his offbeat appeal engendered a mix of campy affection and catty resignation in audiences.

Like his Uncle Francis, Cage was also itching to put his own stamp on the material, and in his freedom, he turned Charlie Bodell into a peculiar comic creation. The defining quirk Cage applied was a nasal lilt to his voice modeled after Pokey from The Gumby Show, thus making the younger Bodell an exaggeratedly pubescent swain. A lot of people find it irritating to this day, even saying it adds a creepy dimension to Charlie some of Cage's more physical blunders. At the dramatic turning point, when Charlie sneaks into Peggy's bedroom to confront her infidelity, his bent, Nosferatu-style hands and the near smothering of Peggy with a pillow work against him.

Luckily, Cage redeems himself by the end of said scene, conveying his wounded pride and crazed despair over losing Peggy with greater dignity than he is credited for. Sure, there is a nervous squeak when he asks "Did we break up?" and the last line is a simpering declaration that "I'm going to be just like Fabian!" But Charlie Bodell is a figure of both humor and heartbreak, and we've seen him project enough budding intelligence and guileless charm up to this point that the pain feels genuine. Peggy Sue is bearing a grudge Charlie doesn't even know exists yet, and his getting cuckolded seems to put Peggy in the wrong despite her clairvoyance.

What I'm saying is that Nicolas Cage doesn't sabotage the role with his peculiar approach, and he has clearly thought through Charlie's emotions and cared enough to bring them to life. This doesn't mean he can't score an honest laugh, such as Charlie's legendary mention of "my wang" when Peggy propositions him, or project the right amount of goofy but good-hearted bravado in his musical numbers. In this case, I am tempted to dispense with the postmodern sarcasm and unashamedly enjoy Cage's screwy but affectionate characterization as it was initially meant to.

Besides, Cage is flanked by an assortment of fellow wild card wonders, including an unknown Jim Carrey as Walter Getz, Charlie's best friend and Carol's steady, and the debut role for Kevin J. O'Connor as Michael Fitzsimmons, the brooding Beatnik whom Peggy romances to Charlie's dismay. Carrey gets a moment to mug his way through a rendition of Dion's "I Wonder Why" with the rubber-bodied gusto that would make him famous, whilst O'Connor reaps some of the wildest dialogue through his pompous poeticism: "I'm going to check out of this bourgeois motel, push myself away from the dinner table and say 'No more Jell-O for me, Mom!'"

Joan Allen appears at the start of her storied career, having also stood out in the same year's Manhunter, as do Catherine Hicks, Helen Hunt (as Peggy's doting daughter Beth) and an acerbic Lisa Jane Persky (from The Sure Thing and Coneheads, as well as Coppola's earlier The Cotton Club) as gossip girl Dolores Dodge. Filling in the guest appearances slot are Leon Ames and Maureen O' Sullivan in touching performances as Peggy Sue's grandparents, plus the mighty John Carradine as a lodge spokesman. And other recognizable faces include Don Stark (Evilspeak) as jock bully Doug Snell, Barbara Harris from Freaky Friday as Mrs. Kelcher ("Peggy, you know what a penis is...stay away from it") and Barry Miller (Fame, Saturday Night Fever) as the millionaire-in-sneakers Richard, who has named his own theory of time travel after a burrito and is given hot tips on future innovations from Peggy Sue, such as "Walk-a-mans" and "portable enormous radios."

Well-acted across the board, wrapped up tidily with a John Barry musical score (as well as token appearances by Buddy Holly and his 1980s heir apparent Marshall Crenshaw) and given an intriguingly nostalgic glow by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, the movie is less a technical showcase for Francis Coppola than a storytelling triumph. The movie offers us one bravura camera trick right after the opening credits and then keeps itself simply elegant and exciting. Coppola's working on a level of populism which courts comparison to Spielberg as well as Capra, but there's nothing excruciatingly broad about how he handles the dramedy. It has all been captured with deceptively effortless ease, from the strained chemistry between Peggy and Charlie, the thrill of pelvic-thrusting teenaged love and the brutal awareness of temporary relationships between family and friends in need of closure.

How these emotional threads are resolved is not entirely clear-cut, and Peggy's return to the present brings her back into the realm of compromise, as Charlie dotes nearby, having dumped his mistress for having the temerity to confuse the Big Bopper with a cheeseburger. But I felt myself growing up all over again next to Peggy Sue Kelcher, and she's one high-school sweetheart who not only deserves her party crown, but wears it exceedingly well. Peggy Sue Got Married, but you'll love the gal just the same.

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