03 October 2011

JOHN HUGHES: WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)

With The Breakfast Club, John Hughes solidified his reputation as a chronicler of teenage life in the 1980s - white teenagers in comfortably bourgeois suburbs, at any rate - but that probably isn't something he was actively thinking about when he began prepping Weird Science, his third film as a director. The new film came out all of six months after The Breakfast Club was in theaters, for a start, which would hardly have given him enough time to bask in his newfound persona before starting work. Not to mention, Weird Science is hardly a straight development along the line of Sixteen Candles > The Breakfast Club: the DNA is the same (frustrated teenagers, arbitrary authority figures, suburban Chicago, a strong awareness of trends in pop culture, Anthony Michael Hall), but while both of those earlier films are to some degree pensive, one might even be so harsh as to say angsty studies of teenagers in their miseries, Weird Science is nothing so much as a mixture of the new Hughes psychological concerns with the wacky, broad comedy of his early screenplays.

The film features two of the most sex-obsessed computer nerds in cinema history, Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), benighted by an utter inability to impress the girls at Shermer High School (played by a significantly different building than we saw in The Breakfast Club; I'll admit to a twinge of disappointment that Hughes didn't try a bit harder to keep the locations throughout his films consistent, that we might entertain the notion that they all take place in the same fictional universe, instead of simply using the same fictional town name). Luckily, Wyatt is such an accomplished computer user that he has drifted over the line celebrating techies from magicians, and in a sequence that is one of the most exquisitely '80s things you will ever see in any motion picture, he and Gary feed the physical data for their perfect woman into a computer that could not, in 2011, run a flashlight, and through the power of lightning and Foley effects, the computer generates a full-dimensional flesh-and-blood woman (Kelly LeBrock) right in Gary's bedroom.

Perhaps surprisingly & perhaps not, that's about all the farther we'll go with plot for the movie: by this point in our little Hughes retrospective, I hope it's become clear that the writer's impulse is consistently to set up a scenario and watch it play out in different contexts, rather than construct a complicated, layered story. In this case, the scenario is: "What happens if two nerds create a woman so perfect that they're scared to put the make on her, and if she thus takes pity on them and decides to use her awesome computer powers to force them into a series of misadventures all meant to demonstrate that they're much more capable than they give themselves credit for?" Pretty much what you'd expect: the woman, christened Lisa, causes the boys to develop the self-assurance to go out with real girls, to party, and to stand up to Gary's dick brother Chet (an eerily baby-faced Bill Paxton).

Weird Science has always been the runt of Hughes's high school tetralogy (that is, the four he made as director), for the unanswerable reason that it's quite frivolous: sure, Gary and Wyatt's steady growth from callow, sex-starved buffoons to functioning members of society fits in with the director's coming-of age pictures better than it might seem at first glance, but it's awfully hard to take a movie's sociological underpinnings very seriously when the emotional climax involves the heroes fighting off imaginary mutant barbarians from a parody of The Road Warrior. There is a delicate balance between outright silliness and emotional resonance, and Hughes would hit it with his next feature; but in Weird Science, silliness rules the day as it does in none of his other directorial efforts, and virtually none of his screenplays from the '80s. When The Breakfast Club puts its immortal stamp on "Don't You (Forget About Me)", it ends, 20 years later, in a thousand LiveJournal posts; when "Weird Science" comes on the radio, assuming it ever does, it just makes one grin at how fucking goofy it is.

Maybe for this exact reason, I actually enjoy Weird Science more than either of its predecessors, even as it suffers from some particular nasty flaws that neither of them had to deal with. Self-conscious seriousness, when it's not as insightful as it wants to be, is a bore; but idle wackiness, on the other hand, now that's just fun to watch. Not that Weird Science is "better"; in fact, it feels less aesthetically controlled than The Breakfast Club, eschewing that film's cautious pacing and pointed use of music in favor of a competent, but largely anonymous filmmaking style.

That's not one of the flaws, though. What I actually had in mind was the film's continued reliance on Hughes's reflexively middle-class values: I am not convinced, as some would have it, that the filmmaker was specifically racist or misogynist, but Weird Science gives a lot of substance to those arguments. Once again, the film's world is overwhelmingly white; and once again, I am obliged to point out that it is a lightly fictitious version of an overwhelmingly white society. But this time, that argument feels stilted, for this time, Hughes has seen fit to give us some black people, in a blues club that Lisa drags the boys to as part of their betterment. Kudos to the elliptical suggestion that North Shore teens can benefit from exposure to people and places outside of their limited world; not so much kudos to the way that the inhabitants of that world speak and act in such a playfully shuck 'n jivey way; and a special form of bitter anti-kudos to Anthony Michael Hall's subsequent explorations in speaking like a cartoon black man, a bit of racially-insensitive clodhopping that rests near to Mickey Rooney's notorious Mr. Yunioshi in my private pantheon of "I wish I had not seen a white person do that" moments. It's a far cry from Long Duk Dong, but it's problematic as hell.

As for sexism - the movie's plot hinges on two boys creating a perfect woman, and while they entirely fail to sexually exploit her, she devotes every bit of her energies to makign their lives better with no thought to her own agency. Right, so she's a computer program, and has no agency; but by the point that defense become useful, the film has long gone beyond the realm of speculative fiction, and into the world of pure fantasy. And it would appear, for Hughes, that fantasy looks a lot like a jolly, unproblematic variant of The Stepford Wives. I would rather not make a big thing of this: Hughes gave enough great female characters to '80s cinema that I don't think any charge that he's pervasively anti-woman could possibly stick, but there's no denying that this particular film is awfully uncomfortable in that regard. And there's a definite through-line connecting Weird Science with his earlier script for Mr. Mom, one that is massively invested in traditional gender roles and the unexamined belief that women "ought" to be subservient to men. It's one of the dark sides of Hughes's films in general that for all his love of the outsiders and the oddballs, he never even thinks about actually challenging the status quo. That is never made more literal or obvious than it is here, thankfully, but it's nettlesome regardless.

Now, I've said all that, and it's true, but it doesn't make Weird Science a Bad Movie. The film is too non-confrontational to feel like it's some reactionary piece of Reaganite propaganda; the worst you can say about the film is that Hughes doesn't seem to notice what he's doing, not that he's being actively malicious. And the best you can say is that the film is bouncy and charming, anchored by Hall's finest comic turn for the director and LeBrock's disarmingly easygoing turn as a self-satisfied sex goddess. It's cute and playful, and a wonderful time capsule of the look and concerns of the mid-'80s (including the dubious bits); though I will say this as another unanswerable criticism of the film, that the boys are first inspired to create a woman through a viewing of James Whale's Frankenstein. A colorised version of Frankenstein. A damnable heresy!

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