27 October 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1987)

If I have it right, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a deliberate half-step away from the teen angst pictures upon which the bulk of John Hughes's reputation rested in the mid-'80s (and continues to rest), redefining and to a certain extend refuting the entire worldview of films like The Breakfast Club, and serving in all ways as a most suitable farewell to the first portion of the filmmaker's directorial career. Whereas his farewell to the teen genre as a screenwriter and producer and brand name is the polar opposite: it is indeed so much a continuation of the ideas driving Hughes's run from Sixteen Candles to Pretty in Pink that it is, functionally, little other than an uncredited remake of that latter film, with the sexes reversed and with the writer's original ending restored.

This is Some Kind of Wonderful, the second film by Pretty in Pink director Howard Deutch, still in his guise as the face Hughes slapped on the films that were just too dark and serious and edgy for the main line, as it were. Once again, we have the tale of a kid from the poor side of a Southern California community falling in love with one of the most desirable rich kids at school, all while the genderfucking best friend sits on the sidelines and pines with unrequited love. Here, it's Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) who lives in a working-class home, with a father (John Ashton) who has spent these many years driving into his son's head the value of college and not ending up a miserable laborer. This message, loving though it is, has been communicated with a ferocity that has left Keith in a state of constant resentment and rebellion and anti-college furor.

His best friend in life is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), an aggressive tomboy who has just started to realise, when the movie kicks off, that she is in love with Keith. And that's what makes it doubly painful for her when he asks out the beautiful daughter of privilege Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), who says yes not because she has any particular regard for Keith, but because she's trying to cut off her rich bastard ex, Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer). Deprived of both her love interest and her BFF, Watts tries to shut this new relationship down, reasonably pointing out that it cannot possibly go well, but Keith just muscles on past Amanda's reluctance to find even more reluctance, and he muscles past that as well; observing this, Hardy concocts a scheme to turn Keith into a small puddle of goo.

This isn't exactly the same as Pretty in Pink, though it's close enough that if anybody but Hughes and Deutch had been responsible for making it, we'd recall it today as that one movie that was a complete Pretty in Pink ripoff. As it is, it's mostly interesting for seeing how the filmmakers reconceived the character relationships and conflicts without much changing the setting. The biggest single change is that the Rich Kid in this case is not actually in love with the Working Class Protagonist, and this has the net effect of making Some Kind of Wonderful considerably nastier than its predecessor. Simply put, Amanda is not a terribly good person, no matter how many incidental details Hughes plugs into her backstory to make us like her: she is using Keith as a prop and she knows it. To her credit, she feels pretty bad about it, but this is never fundamentally a movie about the boy stuck between two girls who love him; it's about a boy who thinks that the girl loves him who is actually just too guilt-stricken to let him down easy. And that's part of what makes the film kind of nasty, as well, since it's virtually impossible not to regard Keith as being, fundamentally, a complete idiot, an impression pushed along considerably by Stoltz's determined, almost militant earnestness. He is a phenomenally guileless individual, all big eyes and "gee whiz!" smile and total lack of critical distance from anything in his life and therefore a total inability to see what's right in front of him. The movie's plot is basically about how he gets crushed.

When I call Some Kind of Wonderful a nasty movie, I'm not really saying that it's a bad thing. On the contrary, what struck me most about Pretty in Pink was that Deutch was able to tap into a strain of real social bitterness that gave the movie a lot more snap than Hughes's self-directed fables. And Some Kind of Wonderful has more snap yet, what with its acutely difficult love interest and mean tale of an innocent being punished for his naïveté. Frankly, the script is probably even better than Pretty in Pink, with generally more interesting characters and fewer contrived events, and a poor parent/poor child relationship that makes more sense and admits for a much more satisfying "self-righteous teen explains life to his elder" speech like Hughes was so damn fond of (and would never again get to write after this!).

And yet Some Kind of Wonderful is absolutely not a better movie, which is partially because Deutch's direction is even less personal than it was before, and there's nothing in the new film to give it the structural integrity of building Pretty in Pink along a socio-cultural divide with music as the signifier of what class each character belonged to; Some Kind of Wonderful uses class issues in a similarly forthright way, but without anything like the same insight into cultural trappings beyond "having money" vs. "having no money". (The strange attempt to give the film the ghost of a structure by giving each of the principals a Rolling Stones-inspired name fizzles out the second that we realise Amanda's name is there solely to justify a groan-inducing cameo from "Miss Amanda Jones" on the soundtrack).

Mostly, it's because Some Kind of Wonderful has a weaker cast: Stoltz is a one-trick pony whose la-de-da boyishness wears thin after about ten minutes, and leaves the ending feeling miles out of characters, whereas Thompson is merely miscast: she looks too old and is not nearly "trophy pretty" enough to justify her place in the story, and she tries to compensate for the latter by making Amanda far too sweet. Masterson is pretty great; the role was intended for Molly Ringwald (or apparently not - see comments. My mind is blown up down and sideways from the idea she was actually meant to play Amanda). and it shows (Ringwald's refusal to play the character led to a permanent split between her and Hughes, depriving him of, arguably, the most important collaborator of his career), but Masterson does more than simply play a Ringwald clone, and her honeyed-sarcastic take on the character is actually pretty awesome, if not enough to make it okay that she's in love with Eric Stoltz. And though he falls into the "much too old" category, Elias Koteas - in his first big role - is absolutely great as Keith's acerbic but gentle skinhead buddy, um, Skinhead.

I am glad this movie exists: it makes for an extraordinarily interesting counterpoint to Pretty in Pink - darker, much stiffer, marginally less cheesy. Worse, but arguably more intelligent. It does not have, as Ferris Bueller does, a valedictory feel, like Hughes was summing up; it is, on the contrary, perhaps the most minor and self-absorbed of his teen movies (Weird Science runs it a tight second). It's very much an advanced-studies John Hughes sort of picture; Masterson notwithstanding, it does not want to be liked in the same easygoing way as Sixteen Candles, for example. But the cynical view of humanity demonstrated within makes it a fascinating outlier in the writer/producer's canon and the '80s teen film generally, and the way that it illuminates the dark side of the genre is enough to make it a film of particular value, though I can't in conscious say that it's overlooked or unjustly ignored. Sometimes these strange outliers are special precisely because they are somewhat hidden.

5 comments:

Jordyn said...

Pretty much what I thought you'd think. I think the biggest argument one can make for PIP vs. SKOW is whichever one you saw first is the one you're gonna like more.

Also, John Hughes originally wanted Molly Ringwald to play Amanda Jones, not Watts. I frankly can't imagine Ringwald in the role. She may be a lot of things but "trophy pretty" isn't one of them, especially compared to Lea Thompson.

RK Kuppãla said...

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Tim said...

Jordyn- Wow, seriously? That would have been TERRIBLE casting.

Rebecca said...

So what I was going to say in comparing this movie to Pretty in Pink is that while I don't usually like discussing gender and sociology in film (I had more than enough of that in college), I think it was necessary for Hughes to do this gender switch for the ending he wanted to be at all successful. It's ok for the guy to get the girl he wants and the underdog girl to get the guy she wants. Plus this guy is a nice, normal guy. But no one wants to see the poor girl end up with the poor, eccentric friend when she can have her Cinderella story.

Also, I don't know if I'd call Molly Ringwald the most important collaborator. She was definitely an important collaborator, but there is a lot of John Candy coming up.

Squonk said...

When "Some Kind of Wonderful" came out, I remember being surprised that more people didn't cry out "It's Pretty and Pink with the genders switched!"

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