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Entries in Take Me Home Tonight [2011] (1)

Sunday
Sep042011

Take Me Home Tonight (2011)

Oy of the Tiger

I'm reading a fantastic book called Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Tom Lennon and Ben Garant--not because I've given up film criticism, but because I'm a huge fan of MTV's The State, of which the authors were (are?) members. It's a funny look at developing movies in Hollywood, and a real dream-crusher for any middle-America artistes hoping to be the Charlie Kaufman.

The book has thrown my perception of movies' successes and failures out of whack. Sometimes, when a film turns out horribly, the director or credited screenwriter has little to do with creating the problems. Studio interference, producers interference, and armies of other writers attacking a given script during a years-long notes process can leave even the most original ideas bleeding out in a mid-level executive's office. It seems the reason most filmmakers leave their names on pictures of which they should clearly be ashamed is to ensure payment for the work they put in back when the project's spirit was still intact.

I assume that's the case with Take Me Home Tonight, which was directed by Michael Dowse and written by Jackie and Jeff Filgo (based on an idea by Gordon Kaywin and star Topher Grace). After sitting on the proverbial shelf for four years, the movie was released and ignored last spring. Had it come out in 2007/2008 as it was supposed to, the movie might have had a fighting chance. But the intermediate deluge of 1980s nostalgia pictures, from Adventureland to Hot Tub Time Machine may have burned audiences out on the "Me" decade.

Or the problem could be that the it just isn't very good. Watching the movie last night, I couldn't shake the feeling that the too-easy pop references, big hair, and Reagan-rock soundtrack were tacked on to a fairly standard coming-of-age story. Indeed, the only thing that keeps Take Me Home Tonight from being a complete rip-off of Can't Hardly Wait and License to Drive is lots of coke and f-bombs.

Set in 1988, the movie centers on Matt (Grace), a directionless MIT grad who clerks at Suncoast video in the mall. One day, his high school crush, Tori (Theresa Palmer), walks in and Matt pretends to be a big-shot investment banker shopping for VHS tapes; turns out Tori's also in the business, and they agree to meet up at a mutual friends' annual Labor Day party later that evening. Matt enlists the help of his sister, Wendy (Anna Faris), and his obnoxious best friend, Barry (Dan Fogler), to come with him to the party, which is being hosted by Wendy's douche-y, overbearing boyfriend, Kyle (Chris Pratt).

Before going out, Matt and his cop father (Michael Biehn) re-enact the dinner-table scene from Career Opportunities in which the loser son is warned that his free ride with the folks is about to end. It's almost beat-for-beat thievery, except for Biehn's touching closing line: "I didn't spend a quarter of my savings on MIT so my son could work at a video store."

On their way to the party, Barry helps Matt steal a fancy car from the dealership that he'd been fired from a few hours earlier; big-shot bankers don't drive beaters, after all. The two discover a plastic bag full of cocaine in the glove box, which belongs to Barry's former boss (Bob Odenkirk).

There's no point discussing the rest of the plot in detail. If you've seen any of the other movies I mentioned--or their countless imitators--you know exactly who will end up with whom; you know you're in for a dance contest, clothes-changing montage, and drunken, public declaration of independence. Again, the big difference here is the film's "R" rating, which nets the audience some awesome profanity and a peek at Angie Everheart's breasts (which look about twenty-five years younger than her face...weird). There's also the matter of the coke; that Ziploc bag must have been developed using Tardis technology because practically everyone in the movie gets super high off of it--yet there's still enough left to explode in Barry's face during the climactic car crash.

Despite the rampant clichés and beyond-annoying soundtrack...

(Don't get me wrong; I love all the songs in this movie, but I have a hard time believing a group of post-college kids would play only the greatest hits of the 80s during their party; spinning "Bette Davis Eyes" in 1988, I imagine, would be like playing "How You Remind Me" at a rager today.)

...Take Me Home Tonight has snippets of sharp dialogue and a leading lady in Palmer who makes the movie better than it has any right to be. Yes, she looks and sounds an awful lot like Heather Graham in License to Drive--considering that film came out in the same year that this one is set, one could be seen as an adaptation of the other in the metaverse--but Palmer brings a maturity and vulnerability to the Hot, Popular Girl archetype that trumps even the work Jennifer Love Hewitt did in Can't Hardly Wait.

(Sorry, the DNA of those movies is so woven into this one that it's impossible not to constantly bring them up.)

Palmer and Grace work well together, particularly in their scenes away from the crowds at the two parties they attend during this crazy night. They have a great chemistry that makes their dialogue feel mostly unscripted--until Matt starts whining about high school and his career, and we're reminded that Topher Grace--the buff, wisecracking movie star--is supposed to be a nerdy engineer-type.

In the end, Take Me Home Tonight feels like an indie take on a classic formula. Neither hilarious enough to be a raunchy teen-targeted comedy, nor interesting enough to stake its claim as a drama with a sincere message, I suspect someone stepped in during development and suggested the late-80s motif as a way of punching up the "wow" factor. But from the opening credits, all of the references are like eye-rollingly tacky wallpaper; there's nothing about this story that demands it be set twenty years in the past (sure, Matt's fake position at Goldman Sachs plays like a cute, "if only they knew" gag, but given the fact that the film wrapped before the financial crisis, the best the screenwriters can claim is hip prescience).

This movie is weird, and I highly recommend you watch it. The stuff that doesn't work reeeaaally doesn't work. But the few bits that succeed are great (particularly Michael Biehn, whose performance illustrates just how little justice there is in Hollywood; why isn't he a bigger star?). I was alternately horrified and pleasantly surprised by Take Me Home Tonight, which is 200% more emotion than I usually feel while watching the crap that comes out of the Movies-By-Committee Process.