[27 July 2011]
Five years after the cessation of That ‘70s Show, its cast is still making their careers chronicling the stupid things we do when we’re young. This year, that’s often taken the form of entering into ill-advised, pure-sex relationships with formerly platonic friends of the opposite gender. (I’m looking at you, No Strings Attached‘s Ashton Kutcher and Friends with Benefits’ Mila Kunis.) Leave it to Topher Grace, the one who always seemed like the deepest of the bunch, to make the movie where the main character laments the follies of his youth without getting to have any fun at all.
His 2011 movie, Take Me Home Tonight, also comes with a richer tradition of young-adult cinema behind it. The events of the film take place within one 24-hour period, putting it in the same vein as all-in-one-crazy-night movies such as American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and Superbad. Its ‘80s time period and focus on its characters’ feelings makes John Hughes an obvious touchstone. And focusing in particular on a protagonist who can’t figure out what to do with the rest of his life puts it right alongside The Graduate. It’s as if director Michael Dowse set out to remake Sixteen Candles starring Lloyd Dobler.
In this case, the Dobler is Matt Franklin (Grace), and ex-high school nerd-turned-MIT grad. Unsure he’s still interested in the engineering career he trained for, he’s spending the summer after his college graduation working a menial job as a clerk at Suncoast Video. To make matters worse, his twin sister, Wendy (Anna Faris), has set out on a much firmer path, preparing to move into a condo with her boyfriend, Kyle (Chris Pratt). When Matt’s high school crush, Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), wanders into his store, he tries to take control of his life and vows to woo Tori at Kyle’s end-of-summer party.
Grace, for his part, totally sells his character. He’s entirely believable as an MIT grad unsure of how to proceed with the rest of his life—and he’s even more convincing as a former egghead who grew out of his nerdiest tendencies but is still too smart for his own good. But even though the night is mostly focused on his journey, he does get out of the way enough to let his co-stars give excellent supporting performances. Faris is a perfect foil, embodying sibling rivalry, antagonizing him one minute and rearing up to protect him the next. And, playing a popped-collar meathead, Chris Pratt makes his short moments on screen really work for him, even if he’s doing something as simple as not understanding what “via satellite” means.
Take Me Home Tonight gives these actors just enough material to get interesting performances out of them, and not a bit more. To the movie’s credit, the characters are all looking for direction to their lives—they’re not just out to get drunk and find an easy hookup, like in other, lazier teen-party comedies. Even the shallowest character undergoes at least a modicum of reflection.
Even though all of the pieces are there, Take Me Home Tonight remains as a good example of another film in the ‘80s-nostalgic, all-in-one-night, John Hughes-esque genre without ever becoming something greater. It’s happy to follow along in the footsteps of its inspirations without ever really transcending them. (Even the soundtrack choices, which kick off with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” are pretty typical.) The character of Matt’s best friend, Barry (Dan Fogler), for example, seems more obligatory than compelling. Recently fired, Barry is off in his own subplot where he tries coke for the first time and finds himself enduring a series of increasingly ridiculous sexual adventures. His exaggerated portion of the film, not as thoughtful as the rest, seems like a calculated grab for Harold and Kumar fans.
Unfortunately, the movie never has a chance to defend itself. The DVD release doesn’t contain more than is merited by a movie with mixed reviews and a weak box office (its total gross was less than $7 million, according to Box Office Mojo). The filmmakers didn’t see fit to record a commentary track; the only behind-the-scenes look is a brief group interview with the stars that’s padded out with scenes from the movie. (It’s short, though mildly entertaining, since the group of assembled actors is so naturally funny.)
A selection of deleted scenes—a depressing number of which feature delightful Anna Faris moments—suggests a cut of the movie that was even more generous to the supporting players and probably would’ve helped the movie play better overall; no justification for their exclusion is given. (The only other meaty DVD feature gives background history to some of the song selections, but working through the title cards is laborious.) It’s a shame, because so much of the movie is about the characters trying to take charge of their own lives, but it’s the movie itself that seems to have given up on them.