Friday, March 31, 2017


(R, 20th Century Fox, 93 mins., theatrical release date: February 8, 1985)

I spent the inauguration day of Mr. 45  watching Better Off Dead, but there was nothing nostalgic about it. The effect felt like putting an old friend out to pasture after having been bitten by a slavering zombie. It should have felt like a reason to believe, but failing that, it became a requiem for whatever amber waves washed over the detritus of pop cultures past.

2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Porky's, and so when I revisited it, I tried to understand how something like that could have been such a blockbuster given that it was riding coattails of previous heavy-hitters like American Graffiti and Animal House. I still don't consider Bob Clark's movie to be in the same league as Lucas or Landis. Not even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I really like, could compare to either of those, let alone Diner. And dopier fare like The Last American Virgin, with its unearned "poignancy," or Zapped!, aka "Carrie in Charge," just leaves me cold.

To cut a long intro short, I don't fetishize the 1980s model of mindless adolescent entertainment as much as others do. If pressed to do so, I would look to 1985 as the definitive year of the teen comedy, because overall they were far more diverse and refreshing than the umpteenth "let's get laid" jaunt. Yes, you still had Porky's Revenge and Fraternity Vacation and Hot Chili and whatever other sludge was at the bottom of that well. But there was reason to be cheerful in the deathless deluge of teen capers that were still made-to-order.

Heaven Help Us, itself an evocative boys' club caper located in parochial school, may be the most underrated of the pack because script, direction and acting were all at peak warmth. Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing incorporated old-fashioned romance into its sexual confusion and "snob vs. slob" antagonism. Vision Quest had Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, which went a long way towards humanizing another athletic perseverance curio. Better Off Dead made surreal strides towards being a live-action cartoon, although I think Joe Dante bettered Savage Steve Holland with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Just One of the Guys has its minor merits, as does watching both Fred Ward and Lori Laughlin in Secret Admirer.

Even Back to the Future, despite its sci-fi trappings, sprung a novel twist on the "coming-of-age" template by placing a contemporary boy in a 1950s environment to play matchmaker to his future parents, Zemeckis & Gale milking the scenario for all the metaphysical and hormonally-conflicting anxieties they could.

Between the poles of hackneyed and inspired came Mischief, which is where '80s nostalgia meets '50s nostalgia and threatens to cancel each other out. Norman Rockwell's Porky's, the critical consensus was likely to refer to it back then. The writer and executive producer, Noel Black, once directed Pretty Poison and made a music-only short film which was a smash at Cannes. Then in 1983, he directed Private School, to a lowest-common-denominator majority. It had Linda Barrett, Mr. Hand, Emmanuelle teaching sex ed, the aforementioned Modine, topless Betsy Russell, and a bawdy ol' Harry Nilsson break-up anthem for its opening credits, the single best musical cue of any teen sex comedy of its time. And yet, the Porky's curse was still casting a pall over the movies geared towards teens.

Whereas Noel Black once possessed enough clout to make Private School seem like the proverbial thankless task, the director of Mischief is Mel Damski, who delivered his own turkey the same year as Black with Yellowbeard. There's nothing in his biography worth mourning. 

Mischief was also looked at by film reviewers in '85 as less the progeny of American Graffiti and more like a blue spawn of TV's Happy Days, with Doug McKeon from On Golden Pond in the Ron Howard role and first-timer Chris Nash as Henry Winkler. This is another modernized "period piece" that communicates its story purely though signifiers and stereotypes, only the seams stick out more by virtue of its Johnny Come Lately development. There's even a snippet of Rebel Without a Cause thrown in to set up an impressionable chicken race which is a transparent excuse for one of those most egregious teen comedy clichés: the "hilarious" destruction of a borrowed car.

You don't need to be Janet Maslin or Owen Gleiberman to stifle a yawn at the predictability factor here.

McKeon plays Jonathan Bellah, the self-described "dreamer" who would've been played much more colorfully in a contemporary setting by Anthony Michael Hall. He's got the rolled-up khakis and dentist's heir glow of the introverted geek. Nash is Gene Harbrough, the new kid in Nelsonville, Ohio, with the whole PG-friendly greaser accessory kit (slicked-up hair, leather jacket, blue jeans, motorbike) and stern concert violinist father, who we realize too late is played by Terry O'Quinn(!) Gene is Jonathan's new neighbor, and the awkward kid finds a big brother surrogate in the hip stranger. More pertinently, he finds a new tutor.

The reason for that is Marilyn McCauley, the local sexpot, played by Kelly Preston with deliberate shades of both Norma Jeane and Cybill Shepherd from The Last Picture Show. Jonathan wants a shot at her in the worst way, and bored Gene decides he'll make it his mission in life to turn the spaz into a stud. Not that Gene will have to go away empty-handed, as he himself is smitten with Bunny Miller (Catherine Mary Stewart), a perky sweetheart in an arranged courtship with loutish preppie Kenny Brubaker (D.W. Brown). On the margins of these competing courtships is ugly duckling Rosalie, a soda shop waitress who is biding her time until she can shed the braces and thick glasses and emerge bodaciously as the Jami Gertz we all recognized back in 1987.

The plot synopsis needn't go any further, and sadly, despite all the names I just listed in the cast, neither the characters. That's the fault which damns Mischief in the worst way: the rigid confines of these characters slouching and strutting through the equally limited plot. Jonathan realizes his wildest fantasy come true, but it means shattering both his naiveté and his appeal. Gene wastes no time establishing his delinquent-with-the-heart-of-gold bona fides and is ridden with angst over Bunny's inability to stand up against Kenny. Marilyn's more experienced ways throw Jonathan for a loop at the last moment, and he counters perfidy with petulance in the vomit-inducing tradition of Boaz Davidson, although Mel Damski directs his actors far better.

Earnest and laconic is the way Black fashions his script, which helps out immensely in the friendship that develops between Jonathan and Gene. Yet his oft-risible dialogue often betrays the loose tone and Damski's direction can't rise above anything better than workmanlike. These combine to give the scenes between Jonathan and Marilyn, which are the crux of the movie, a toxic sense of apathy. From the way Jonathan cavalierly clutches at Marilyn's breast after taking a pratfall to their inevitable bedroom encounter, in which Jonathan bluffs his way out of his lack of rubber-centric preparation but still climaxes traditionally, Jonathan's sexual awakening feels at once passé and piggish.

All Mischief truly delivers on is the Eisenhower-era nostalgia, from the sock hop outfits to the tacky Studebakers (I can hear Kathleen Turner laughing in my head), from the county fair kissing booth raising awareness of polio to the long-needled immunity shots (where's Wade Walker when you need him?). Just like American Graffiti and Lemon Popsicle, the period oldies are ladled over liberally: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Mickey & Sylvia, a little Elvis, and Bill Haley's Comets giving Jonathan an ultimatum to "See You Later, Alligator" as he sneaks out through Marilyn's window. If you can get past some minor issues with the film's stated setting of 1956 clashing with the release of a few 45s (particularly the late Berry's), you can enjoy the swinging soundtrack on its own terms.

Other than those chestnuts, Mischief goes according to plan for anyone who has seen enough teen farces. Jonathan takes his first swig of hard liquor and commanders Gene's trusty but anachronistic Triumph, with obvious results. The conflict involving Kenny is good for a salacious prank at the expense of his dad's department store, but mostly it's tediously prolonged fight sequences and upturned milkshakes. And when the heroes find themselves in romantic straits on prom night, the one who's been recently kicked out of his house is forced to sleep out in the barren countryside.

With a better-than-average cast on board (Catherine Mary Stewart, despite being raised in Edmonton, credibly plays the all-American girl here as well as she did in The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet) and a willing assemblage of pros to make the pastel-pretty visuals come alive (including DP Donald Thorin, set decorator Ernie Bishop and costumer Mina Mittelman), it's a shame Mischief works only on a strictly superficial level. This is yet another film that takes an obviously '80s (or '70s, in the cases of Davidson and Lucas, who gets ribbed right at the opening) sensibility to '50s growing pains. Two schools of "they don't make 'em like they used to" thought combined to excuse a film which begs to have been made better than it did.

If that's your kick, then seek out Diner or Heaven Help Us, instead.

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