Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Kind of Wonderful Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

Some Kind of Wonderful is often compared to Pretty in Pink as being a retread of similar material. Both were written by John Hughes, that master of writing teen characters in the 80s, but I think the similarity between the two is superficial. It’s true that both films are about class divides in American high schools. Both are about a teen from the poor side of town who falls in love with a rich kid. But Hughes, in his way of probing beneath the surface, uncovered different layers in this telling.

As directed by Howard Deutch, it opens with a montage that gives us a lot of character information in a short span of time. Even if it is a little ham-handed in the way it’s so obvious about Keith’s working-class background (while he ogles his love interest from afar he looks down at his grime-covered hands) contrasted against the rich playboy lifestyle of Hardy Jenns. Deutch also directed Pretty in Pink, but his directing career since has been a series of lame comedies and lamer sequels to other directors’ lame comedies. He did get to marry Lea Thompson at the end, so he had that going for him.

I point out that fact because I had a terrible boyhood crush on Lea Thompson thanks to Back to the Future in which she was simply radiant. She’s probably the main reason I was so fond of Some Kind of Wonderful as a kid. I wanted Keith to wind up with her in the end. I was 100 percent on his side because I saw myself in him. Not that I was a garage mechanic, but I certainly wasn’t one of the gorgeous and popular kids in school. Although one of the main problems with the film is that Eric Stoltz, in spite of his ginger hair and freckles, is actually quite good looking in this film with absolutely beautiful blue eyes. So I have trouble buying him as Keith the social outsider except insofar as he is perfect as the soft-spoken and shy kid who has trouble telling his dad that their hopes for his future don’t coincide.

Interestingly, what I had forgotten is that Keith’s love interest Amanda Jones (Thompson) is not a rich girl but rather a girl who comes from his part of town who has made the crossover into the social lot of rich kids because of her good looks. So really Some Kind of Wonderful is less about differing economic social groups than it is about a kid, in this case Amanda, losing sight of her values to run with the ‘in’ crowd. Keith actually helps bring her back a little bit.

Amanda’s boyfriend is Hardy Jenns (Craig Scheffer), a wealthy kid who has everything handed to him on a silver platter. He’s also a smarmy shitbag who cheats on Amanda under her nose and then uses her own insecurity as self-defense. He’s an easy villain to hate. When she breaks up with him, Keith takes the opportunity to ask her out on a date. She says yes in the midst of emotional tumult and so she can get back at Hardy. The third major character is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), Keith’s best friend since childhood and a tomboy drummer. She wants only to protect Keith from getting hurt and maybe harbors some ulterior motives for warding him off Amanda that perhaps she isn’t even ready to deal with.

The movie works very well for two main reasons: the acting and the writing. Masterson shines the most of the three leads. She shows Watts’ hidden vulnerability through a veneer of toughness. One of the great discoveries John Hughes made in casting this movie was Elias Koteas as the skinhead thug Duncan who ends up befriending Keith. He delivers these perfect little ad libs that spice up hid dialogue and add some great laughs.

I never realized before just how good a writer John Hughes was. His writing reflects a strong empathy with the minds and lives of teenagers. He understands intuitively that although the problems of most teenagers turn out to be meaningless when viewed through the lens of adulthood, in that moment they are the most important thing in the world and we should be sympathetic to that. Apart from writing believable teenage characters, he also manages to give them interesting things to say. There is simply no comparing this to any teenage romance film of the last 15 years.

But his best writing is what he achieves for Keith’s family scenes. Not only is John Ashton perfectly cast as Keith’s father, but the tension between the two as he wants his son to look at colleges while Keith has no interest is so perfectly written, acted and directed. Hughes also nails the dynamic between Keith and his younger sister, Laura (amazingly portrayed by the 16-year old Maddie Corman). The one family member who could use a bit of re-writing is the youngest sister (Candace Cameron) who is one of these precocious movie kids who says things that kids simply don’t say. It unfortunately tears you right out of these otherwise perfectly staged scenes that are among the most true-to-life family depictions in modern cinema.

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