Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me/Weird Science

2009, Matt Austin/1984, John Hughes - netflix

The more time marches on, the more lionized the teen comedies/dramas of John Hughes become. If there's a singularly defining genre of film that epitomizes the '80's it's the teen flick, and if there's a single creator that epitomizes the genre, it's John Hughes (the debate as to which actor/actress epitomizes the genre is up for debate... I've narrowed to Molly Ringwald, John Cusack or Patrick Dempsey). But Hughes' work at the time met with much criticism and after 1991's lambasted Curly Sue, Hughes effectively retired, vacating Hollywood, only to offer an occasional script for primarily kiddie flicks.

The documentary Don't You Forget About Me serves as a love letter to Hughes, a retrospective on his teen genre works, full of talking heads of his film's stars, famous fans and film critics doling out their perceptions of the man they knew, either directly or through his work, all little glimmers of insight into who he was. Outside of the talking heads, there's interviews with "modern" teens discussing how Hughes films hold up compared to films of today, as well the main thread is story of the documentary's creators, four Canadian kids who are in search of the reclusive Hughes, in hopes of getting some form of interview with him at best, and just a statement from him at worst.

Produced in 2006, three years before Hughes passed away, the film's narrow focus solely on Hughes teen genre work doesn't give much in the way of insight into the man, his youth or what drove him to hollywood, what came before or what came after. The film shies away from discussing his biggest successes (Home Alone, National Lampoon's Vacation) and barely touches on his failures, noting only that even his now legendary teen films weren't all so widely welcomed by critics at the time (highlighting a Gene Siskel review panning Ferris Beuller's Day Off). The tone of the film is meant to be uplifting, but invariably the lack of details the creators or their talking heads have on the man, the true lack of insight they provide, makes it frustrating viewing.

The final act of the film, where the quartet of filmmakers find Hughes house through Scooby Doo-style detective work, and plan their approach on his house is exciting but also quite uncomfortable. As uneasy, thoughtful and patently Canadian as they are with the thought of invading Hughes' space, they still approach, and the mystery of will they or won't they get their big finish is a taut one, but ultimately they are unrewarded, as is the audience. There's no big finish, which is probably the one thing that could have redeemed the film. The Hughes of this film is presented as an enigma, by and large, and I'm not sure that's the case. Perhaps a more recognized filmmaker, or a studio putting some money behind a documentary could pull off a more complete picture of the man, rather than a soft-focussed, gushing, yet ultimately unsatisfying and uninformative tribute.

What the documentary does effectively, however, is inspire the viewer to approach Hughes' works again, or at least the works they're unfamiliar with... well, that and a google search of John Hughes just to find out something more about the man... checking out his wiki and IMDB pages provides in quick doeses surprisingly more information than the documentary feature.

My first trajectory of approach was to see what was available streaming on Netflix Canada. Weird Science was the first to pop up that I hadn't seen (at first mistaking Real Genius for it). Cuing it up, I got roughly 15 minutes in before I had seen enough and new exactly where it was heading. The teen nerd fantasy is a well explored concept by now in popular culture, but I'm sure it was just as patronizing in 1985.

What's most surprising about Weird Science is how awful it is, as science fiction, as comedy, as a teen flick, it's patronizing and ridiculous. That it occurred as the middle film of Hughes' teen movie oeuvre is equally surprising. That two ostracized teenage boys manage to somehow create a whole woman through their computer (and a lightning strike) is far fetched, but not the key problem with the film's conceit. The elaborate but transparently ludicrous "hacking" sequence leading to the creation of "Lisa" is overlong and, at times, annoying. That this is quickly followed up with the abusive older brother (Bill Paxton no less) and white kids in a jazz bar (see also Adventures In Babysitting) cliches had me cringing, and it doesn't get any better for the hour that follows.

The basic conceit of the film, about an older woman taking two awkward, fully inexperienced teenaged boys and transforming them into semi-confident, semi-inexperienced teenaged boys is mirrored in the plot of Y Tu Mama Tambien some years later, but stripped of everything ridiculous and turned into an evocative drama about growing up, which is what Hughes films are generally known for.

Weird Science is, I'll bluntly reiterate, terrible, and, if it were at all possible, should be excised from Hughes' catalog (then again, much of Hughes' output in the 90's, primarily kiddie focused screenplays do not reflect well upon him eithere...Dennis the Menace?). It certainly shouldn't be brought up in the same breath as Ferris Beuller or Some Kind of Wonderful. It's flagrant nerd wish fulfillment, lacking almost any spark of the natural teen Hughes would become known for.