Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Enchantéd, Pt. IX: How I Got Into College

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

IX. How I Got Into College (1989)
(PG-13, 20th Century Fox)


Previously on Mind of Frames...

Planet Earth 1989 by way of 2015. A young movie reviewer has found his muse in the form of actress Diane Franklin. In a rush of encouragement, he decides to revisit her many movie roles in the 1980s. Watching Diane's resume gives the writer a productive first year and a sense of success. No matter what opinion is reached for each title, he feels elated to have made such progress and is genuinely thankful for Diane's support both in spirit and in flesh. The feedback she offers is ailment to his restless mind, and even after a complicated second year of writer's block and personal instability, the man renews his commitment with as much purpose and delight as ever.

However, in looking back to the past, the tributary scribe suddenly reaches the dawn of the next decade, and the possible end of his inspiration. Faced with the closing of the 1980s, Diane Franklin has given thought to the progress of her acting career, and, unable advance into a player of mature and multi-faceted characters, instead becomes an adult on her own terms. This means marriage, two children, a full-time gig as acting teacher in Agoura Hills, becoming an animal care-taker, branching out into children's book illustrations, and defining herself not simply as Diane Franklin, but as Diane DeLaurentis.

At this point in Enchantéd, I've reached a burning need for a grander context to make up for the absence of Diane in the 1990s and 2000s. But how do I begin?

Well, the most parallel observation I could make is that the kind of teen-oriented films Diane Franklin had been starring in since 1982 were gradually becoming less imbecilic and frivolous. There was a definite increase in quality scripts and thematic spice than back when young people in movies were defined solely by their hedonism. You had rising stars making legit names for themselves in the genre, whether it be Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Molly Ringwald, John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Mary Stuart Masterson, or River Phoenix. Writers and/or directors also demonstrated greater depth-of-perception towards the typical teen angst, which resulted in the rise of John Hughes and many exemplary films like Risky Business, Lucas, the Aussie import The Year My Voice Broke, and Running on Empty.

By 1989, the evolution of the teen flick culminated in not just the pure entertainment of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but also the arrival of the biting Heathers and the benevolent Say Anything. The latter film demonstrated something most so-called "coming-of-age" films in the 1980s were too base to achieve: a genuine feeling of newly-minted maturity. I can't look back on the decade, what with all of its sub-Porky's, swinging-dick monotony, without hearing Lili Taylor's pitch-perfect statement of young adulthood: "The world is full of guys. Be a man."

Which brings me back to Savage Steve Holland, the writer/director of Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. In terms of celluloid worth, he is in the middle of the auteur spectrum, not as bright as John Duigan (of The Year My Voice Broke and the equally bracing Flirting) but more bearable than Boaz Davidson (of those piss-flavored Lemon Popsicle movies). Holland's propensity for animation gave him a distinct personality which lasted for two movies, but at least that debut film was surrealistically sublime.

Alas, it soon proved that Holland was more suitable for kid's television, starting with Beans Baxter for Fox and Encyclopedia Brown for HBO. Nowadays, he's best known for the cult series Eek! the Cat as well as numerous Nickelodeon and Disney Channel sitcom credits. One of those projects, A Fairly Odd Christmas, boasts a story credit by Diane Franklin's husband Ray DeLaurentis, whereas Franklin herself made an appearance in Encyclopedia Brown & The Case of the Ghostly Rider, as did the late Taylor Negron.

Franklin did more TV guest appearances after 1985 than movies, including in episodes of Matlock, Charles in Charge and Murder, She Wrote. But she was good enough friends with Holland to appear briefly on the set of One Crazy Summer for an unused scene with John Cusack and to do a cameo role in what would become Holland's final major motion picture, How I Got Into College.

And as it turns out, Savage Steve Holland wasn't even the movie's original director, nor did he even write the screenplay!

Twentieth Century Fox had originally signed on a newcomer named Jan Eliasberg (Past Midnight), who brought a more unorthodox sense of style to the project. Her low-key approach scared the studio, who expected a film more interested in high jinks. Three days into the shoot, an audacious camera trick cost her the job and Fox chose to hire Holland in her place. You can read the full story about Eliasberg's unceremonious outing in this vintage Los Angeles Times article which connects her to other female directors like Martha Coolidge and Mary Lambert, all of whom were facing uphill battles against the Hollywood system.

Diane Franklin would have doubtlessly bowed out with Bill & Ted were Holland not involved, so as a fan, I should be grateful that he was Fox's back-up choice. Funnily enough, though, Franklin's character here is less Princess Joanna and more "Missy...I mean, Mom." Playing the icy stepmother of lead character Marlon Browne (opposite Richard Jenkins as Mr. Browne!), her Sharon (hey, that rhymes with Karen) looks as beaming as a recent college grad but desperately wishes Marlon would move out and free up valuable bedroom space. In one of Holland's usual embellishments, Sharon is introduced teaching advanced geometry to a tyke ("Find the tetrahedron! No, that's a hexagon, sweetie"), a joke on the academic inadequacy of our dopey hero.

High school junior Marlon Browne (Corey Parker) seems to be on the fast-track to a GED rather than the hallowed halls of higher education. Holland demonstrates this much with live-action variants on his usual cartoon tangents involving two SAT answer men who jeer on Marlon as he bungles various word problems. The performers in these interstitials are Bruce Wagner (the poison penman of Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Maps to the Stars) and Tom Kenny (the future voice of Spongebob Squarepants and sketch comedy star from Mr. Show). One of these uproarious moments has Marlon frenetically guessing to no avail the amount of water the two hypothetical dorks would need to shovel out of a sinking, shark-ravaged boat ("You're killing us!").

The only university Marlon is determined to enroll at is Ramsey College, which is where the girl he fancies is bucking for entry. She is Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle), the gorgeous go-getter valedictorian who is more Diane Court than Tracy Flick in her poise. As she is campaigning for senior class presidency, Jessica parlays her honor roll credentials and summer student exchange residency (in Italy, where she got interested in saving the Frescoes) into a slot at the Pennsylvanian campus. The gawky Marlon bides his time in approaching his dream girl, pursuing her down the many prospective rituals involving recruitment fairs and open-house parties.

Writer Terrel Seltzer (Dim Sum, One Fine Day) thankfully broadens the movie's perspective beyond any syrupy expectations. There's plenty of acerbic wit in the discussions about tall tales of stressed-out interviewees and the conflicting values of the Ramsey admissions board. As Dean Patterson (Philip Baker Hall) is resigning after 17 years, there is competition between the laid-back, idealistic Kip Hammett (Anthony Edwards) and the smarmy, materialistic Leo Whitman (Charles Rocket), each vesting interest in their idea of a model student. Kip, who is dating the minority recruitment spokesperson Nina Saatchi (Finn Carter), offers his support to the lovesick Marlon.

Nina finds what she's looking for in Detroit via a spunky, book-smart "spud technician" and graduating senior named Vera Cook (Tichina Arnold). In her own way, Vera feels painfully aware of her own meager prospects as the main white kids in love. All three of them are groomed by their well-meaning but self-absorbed parents into fulfilling their planned social destinies, particularly Jessica, who doesn't want to be another sorority girl baking "ham pineapple surprise" in a modern nuclear family kitchen. To help leaven the mood, there are quirky best friends for the two leads in the presence of grungy Oliver (Christopher Rydell), who wants to experience the real world on his own terms (by hitchhiking with rogue game show hostesses and claiming surplus grand prizes), and the hyper-reactive Kelly (Annie Oringer), whose weepy anxiety is played entirely for chuckles.

Throughout it all, Savage Steve Holland finds several opportunities to detour the material into his oddball alternate dimension. When Oliver gets into argument over Marlon's infatuation with a girl who won't even give him the time of day, the room stops silent so Jessica can tell him the actual time. There's a running gag involving a gullible admissions staff member named Flutter (Bill Raymond) and his fear of pigs stemming from a practical joke. Jessica's fateful interview becomes a symphony of self-loathing and desperation; in effect, she becomes the neurotic urban legend she previously kidded her friends with (also, watch out for Dan "Ricky Smith" Schneider). And Taylor Negron returns to deliver the mail just like he did in Better Off Dead, only now he's crushing another teen boy's ego.

The tone is certainly much lighter and perfunctory through Holland's input than Jan Eliasberg would have demonstrated had she been kept aboard, especially by comparing their treatments of the college fair scene. Eliasberg, as previously mentioned, wanted to capture the chaos in a one-take scene wholly from Marlon's viewpoint. The footage of this was ruined due to a faulty camera when Holland took over, and in wanting to make the movie "cheerier," that scene in particular was ironed out by Holland, who gave the Fox the comforting coverage Eliasberg denied them. The reactions of Corey Parker and Chris Rydell register more broadly, there are snappy caricatures of Army recruiters and Asiatic nerds and, last but not least, a Curtis Armstrong cameo as the spokesman for bible-belt Arcadia College.

The fundamental difference between How I Got Into College and Holland's previous films is the pronounced levity of the young people's aspirations. In Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, Holland was more hands-on creatively and the gags tended to overpower their admittedly flimsy premises. You may recall "I want my two dollars!" quicker than "Mercy buckets." Still, the creative and kooky personalities from earlier reaped victories romantic (the pairing of dejected Lane Meyer and delightful Monique Junet) and vengeful (Hoops McCann and his grotesque friends winning the regatta by literal hook and crook). In this case, Holland's lack of juvenile indulgence means that his sympathy for these teenage dreamers runs deeper than before.

If John Cusack's roles from Dead and Summer are explicit proxies for Holland, maybe the attitude Holland brings to How I Got Into College is best shared by Anthony Edwards' character, a dry-witted brother figure adamant on giving fair shakes to the "still-searching, doesn't-know-what-he-wants-to-do-with-his-life" teens whom Terry Seltzer also humanizes in her script. Identities are thrown into discomfiting disarray and futures are manifestly undermined by the closed-minded, crises which require more delicacy and virtue than a film about kids getting laid would demand. This isn't Porky's, whose perpetually-delayed, Howard Stern-produced remake was actually written by Savage Steve Holland.

With Cusack itching for serious acting vehicles and Diane Franklin nearing 30, it's up to Corey Parker and Lara Flynn Boyle to make for both credible teenagers and graceful performers. Parker looks like more of a geek than Cusack ever did, but he imbues Marlon Browne with a plucky dignity all his own, and a young, cherubic Lara Flynn Boyle is just as luminescent as Franklin was in Better Off Dead. Anthony Edwards is reliably charismatic in his last teen flick role, but his opposite number Finn Carter (who played the seismologist attracted to Kevin Bacon in Tremors) comes off brighter and livelier, and is perhaps the real standout in this cast. Also in peak form are Tichina Arnold (Crystal from the musical of Little Shop of Horrors), Charles Rocket, Brian Doyle-Murray (as Coach Evans, the hard-up football enthusiast), and Saturday Night Live alumni Nora Dunn & Phil Hartman as Bauer & Benedek, a pair of shameless bamboozlers operating as SAT consultants.

These check-cashing interlopers end up feeding Marlon the chutzpah he needs to make an impression beyond mere aptitude. That is the charm of Savage Steve Holland in a nutshell. How I Got Into College is not on the subversive level of Better Off Dead, which is going to rank high in my final rundown of Diane Franklin movies, but if her role here is deeply skeptical, at least Holland remains faithful in the ingenuity of his teenaged subjects. For all of his zaniness, maybe such all-encompassing empathy demonstrated Holland's edge throughout his sadly brief 1980s career.

The same could be said for Diane Franklin, who followed her heart away from show business and would not appear in a feature film until after more than a decade plus. Alas, the parts just keep on getting smaller...

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