In the long standing debate between movies as merchandise and film as art, the sex comedy usually get laughed out of the room – and not for the reasons you think. Humor has literally nothing to do with it. Instead, the skin farce, the lust lampoon, the cracked coming of age where wantonness subs for wisdom, is repeatedly snubbed, stuffed in the same lame category as exploitation – smutty without being significant, craven without being creative or clever. Naturally, most of these scholarly decisions are based on a limited sampling of said pseudo-smut. After all, how could you call Porky’s anything other than wimpy white lightning in a unexpected blockbuster bottle, or American Pie as pastry porn?
That’s where the Canadian classic Screwballs comes in. That’s right – CLASSIC. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the seedy subgenre of teenage boys begging to get their rocks off, this surreal statement is its Gone with the Wind. Yes, it’s prurient and pasty. Yes, it makes even a post-millennial audience groan with raincoat crowd crudity. No, it doesn’t have the kind of redeeming social value or aesthetic merit to keep communal moral compasses from veering wildly away from true North. What it does offer, on the other hand, is nothing short of a window into the world circa the early ’80s, a chance to see how far we’ve come in the days since flesh was considered a felony, and even more shockingly, the lack of any real progress since.
The story centers on boobs – there’s no other way to put it. Reigning homecoming queen (and all around stuck-up snob) Purity Busch is rumored to have the hottest rack in all of T&A High. Naturally, this gets a quintet of hormonally overcharged delinquents – chronic masturbator Melvin Jerkovski, dorky science geek Howie Bates, fun loving cut-up Ricky McKay, self-proclaimed BMOC Brent Van Dusen III, and recent transfer student/regular guy Tim Stevenson – all hot and bothered. While serving detention, the guys come up with a scheme. With the help of “friendly” coeds Bootsie Goodhead, Rhonda Rocket, and Sarah Bellum, the boys will each use their wit and cunning to discover a means of checking out Purity’s pom-poms – and it looks like her last public act will be the perfect place for the unveiling.
As you can see, Screwballs is nothing if not subtle. It’s about as understated as a group of drag queens at a Sarah Palin rally. Writers Linda Shayne and Jim Wynorski give director Rafal Zielinski a nice clothesline narrative from which to work, letting the filmmaker follow-up with one unhinged cockamamie concept after another. From the stupid science inspired inventions used by Howie to the fey false bravado oozed by Brent, everything here is a lark. It’s turn of the century burlesque retrofitted for a slightly more permissive time. This is a movie that believes it is progressive, that measures men in hefty ham steaks while the gals are fully flowered in feminism. Why? Well, because the cheerleaders acknowledge their love of nookie while the guys goof around and grunt like Neanderthals.
This is a catch-all comedy, the brains behind the camera coming up with anything and everything to get a laugh. There are clichés and funny business formulas (the absent minded professor, the cougar-cat spinster type). There are archetypes and anarchy (the horndog principal, the centerpiece known as “strip bowling”). There’s even a small amount of social satire and critical commentary to be found – of course, you’ll have to look past all the heavy petting and raw naked human libido to see it. Indeed, the reason Screwballs stands as the ultimate sex comedy has little to do with the bodkin we see and much more with the attitude it offers. Being unapologetic is one thing. Tossing tons of unclothed actresses at the screen for no other reason than genre requirements is quite a different dynamic.
Besides, it’s all in good clean, non-Puritanical, gratuitous Great White North fun. Though Roger Corman’s name is tossed about as someone closely involved in this project, the connection is weak, to say the least (his company, New World Pictures, had some part in the distribution). Instead, this is a pure Rush and back bacon view of friskiness, a ‘baby it’s always cold outside’ combination of adolescent longing and upfront scatology. While it may sound like a knuckleheaded, nonsensical appraisal, it’s actually perfect for something like Screwballs. We don’t want half-baked nostalgia or Airplane! like joke-a-thons. We don’t need a cautionary counterbalance, or reminder of the imbalance within these gender politics. This is a movie that just wants to celebrate the basic human need for pleasure. It’s biology. It’s instinct. It’s what we are.
Luckily, sleaze salvage yard Severin Films has taken this often maligned movie and given it the full blown craven Criterion Collection treatment it deserves. The 1080p transfer is terrific, taking what is often a full screen pan and scan nightmare and turning it into a fresh, if still slightly dated, delight. The colors are crisp and the details prevalent. In addition, they add a bunch of complementary context, including deleted scenes, director’s commentary, cast and crew interviews, and two scholarly overviews – one by Canuxsploitation expert Paul Corupe, the other from celebrity nudity expert Mr. Skin. In tandem, and with the rest of the bonus features provided, they give this amazing film a new lease on life – critically, commercially, and categorically.
Of course, there’s a caveat. Let’s be honest, shall we? Screwballs does have some minor misgivings. The gals we see sans clothing couldn’t compete with the plasticine honeys humpin’ across late night subscription cable nowadays. And in the end, when the big reveal is made, we start to wonder if all the titty-based rigmarole was worth it. Yet the answer is obvious to anyone who has seen the film – Hell-friggin-yeah! Even without this wonderful format update, the blissfully sweet results speak for themselves. Screwballs is indeed a classic – just not for the standard cinematic reasons. As a movie, it’s genuine junk. As a faux-funny erotic epiphany, it’s nothing short of epic.