[4 March 2011]
Take Me Home Tonight is the latest Hollywood comedy that posit that all problems of young adulthood are solved through one long night of sustained party-hopping. Matt (Topher Grace) graduated from MIT, moved back into his parents’ house, and took a job at a video store. In his mind, however, his greatest regret is that he never asked out his high school crush, Tori (Teresa Palmer). Such regret makes him act out when Tori walks into his video store, an event that sets off a chain of lies and bad decisions that are typical of movies like this one. Unfortunately for Take Me Home Tonight, this shtick has been done far better before, including in two recent high school movies—Superbad and Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist—both of which had more wit and heart.
It doesn’t help that the movie is set in the 1980s. Like most movies set in that decade, it uses the time period as a crutch, falling back on tired jokes based on wine coolers, skinny ties, and pastel polo shirts—none of which is inherently funny. Trapped in a loop of clichés backed by a Duran Duran soundtrack, the ‘80s remain the only decade that has not inspired a single filmmaker to make a personal and affecting movie.
Films set in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s —American Graffiti, Diner, Dazed and Confused, and Almost Famous—have revealed serious subtexts, looking back on them through the lens of teenagers and 20somethings struggling to come of age. But movies about the ‘80s typically miss their potential substance. This was the decade that started with the Iran hostage crisis and ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, after all, and grappled with the threat of nuclear war and the emergence of AIDS. There’s plenty of material to mine.
Maybe the problem is that the movies that were actually made in the ‘80s, such as Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the entire John Hughes canon, both reflect concerns of the era and feed our nostalgia for it so effectively that today’s filmmakers feel absolved of any responsibility to focus on it in their work.
Or, we could blame The Wedding Singer for unfairly defining the decade for a generation of Hollywood decision-makers. Admittedly, it was a really funny movie. Besides being Adam Sandler’s best flick, it captured the era’s kitschiness with such precision that every ‘80s themed movie since seems compelled to mimic it.
Whatever the reason, the result is that no one makes movies about the ‘80s, but instead everyone makes movies about ‘80s movies. Take Me Home Tonight is no exception.
None of this is fair to Take Me Home Tonight, which doesn’t really have lofty aspirations. It is not trying to define the ‘80s, but merely to tell another familiar tale about aimless youth. For the most part, it does so by evoking John Hughes, until Matt and his friends find a bag of cocaine and the scene shifts to an investment banker’s mansion in the Los Angeles hills. Here the film briefly feels like it could veer more toward Bret Easton Ellis. That might have been interesting, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, Take Me Home Tonight sticks pretty close to the conventions of the genre, while managing to be harmlessly amusing.
Perhaps the most distracting thing is that the movie would have worked just as well if set in the present day. The characters all seem like they are dressed up to go out to an ‘80s theme night, rather than actually being in the ‘80s. There isn’t a cell phone in sight, but it kind of feels like they all have them in their pockets.
Moreover, Take Me Home Tonight is constantly referencing ‘80s movies without fully owning up to it, as when they steal a convertible à la Ferris Bueller or when Matt is about to do something stupid and echoes Tom Cruise’s famous line in Risky Business. But instead of saying, “Sometimes you’ve just got to say, ‘What the fuck?’,” which inspired a generation to throw caution to the wind (or at least wear Ray Bans to school), Matt lets loose with “Fuck it.” It almost feels like he was worried that if he said the whole line, he wouldn’t be able to fit his sentiment into a tweet.