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Smoke Up, Johnny: The Breakfast Club, Still Gloriously Poignant 25 Years Later

M.T. Richards

The Breakfast Club remains a defining moment for a generation 25 years later. What endures is the sheer heart that defines the film, the way that it supplies stark, grave candor and quirky spunk in equal measure.

’80s nostalgia grew tired long ago, the result of too many Now That’s What I Call Music compilations and VH1 one-hit-wonder specials. We get it: the Gipper’s presidency was something, a period defined by reform, economic prosperity, sax solos, and Chia Pets. Mellencamp and Springsteen rallied the regular folk. Hall & Oates mastered slick, jazzy pop. Madonna sprinkled the charts with musings on Jesus and Mary and abortion and virginity. Ducky and Spicoli made hilarious light of the rampant brainlessness found in suburban high school hallways. Larry Bird proved that, even if white men can’t jump per se, they could still collect titles and MVP trophies with staggering regularity. And Reagan sent Gorbachev running for the hills: take your communism and shove it up your splotchy ass!

But does that justify the relentless retrospective media coverage we’ve been subjected to? The people who grew up during that era seem to think so -- just watch High School Reunion, where the cast members harp inexorably on the glory of yesteryear, fondly remembering the youthful experiences they had a quarter-century ago. These same people call into soft-rock radio stations requesting Mike & the Mechanics or REO Speedwagon, the soundtrack to their adolescent euphoria. They’ve done a lot to ensure that their generation, and the decade that reared them, will forever be the cornerstone of popular culture, and they’ve succeeded: the 1980s have had a larger impact on current trends than any decade before or after.

Not that our enthrallment with the ’80s is ungrounded. Just like pop music will likely never see another innovator as astounding as peak-era Michael Jackson or Prince, cinema will never yield another virtuoso like John Hughes, someone who chronicled the plight of glum, angsty teenagers with an inherent combination of tenderness and understated humor. He was a beacon of artistry and empathy. And his best-known work -- an unprecedented string of blockbusters (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink) made between 1984 and 1986 -- forever changed the way coming-of-age tales were told. A movie like Superbad is more vulgar than the classic Hughes comedy, but the disillusionment and nerdy, undersexed eagerness that underscore every crass joke is grade-A Hughes. Michael Cera’s brand of droll innocence isn’t far removed from Anthony Michael Hall’s; Jonah Hill is a smartass cynic much in the same way that Judd Nelson was.

Hughes was by no means the world’s most versatile filmmaker. He routinely worked with the same mob of Brat Pack whiz kids. He rarely strayed from Chicago, his beloved hometown. And he harped unwaveringly on one theme: teen anguish. Yet Hughes colored within those lines with astounding originality, inundating his works with left-field oddities (Otis Redding covers? Valet parkers stealing Ferraris?) and tons of feeling -- the scene when Ferris’s best friend, the uptight, stoic Cameron, unleashes years of oppressed fury and demolishes his father’s prized sports car remains life affirming. No picture demonstrates that poignancy more than The Breakfast Club, his 1985 juggernaut and the defining youth-sucks movie of all time. These kids, equal parts callous and sensitive, put the insipid horndogs at Ridgemont High to shame.

"They only met once, but it changed their lives forever" -- that was Breakfast Club’s memorable tagline. Lost in the endless shuffle of students at a high school in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, five depressive children were forced to endure a Saturday detention together in the school library, bonded by nothing but their sheer contempt for everything and everyone. They personified the stereotypes: you had the hyper-masculine wrestler (Andy, played by Emilio Estevez), the lusty homecoming queen (Claire, played by Molly Ringwald, a relic of the ’80s in the same way that Donny Osmond was a relic of the ’70s), the prank-committing stoner (John, played by Judd Nelson), the wholesome honor student (Brian, played Anthony Michael Mall), and the deranged recluse (Alison, played by Ally Sheedy). Andy and Claire chant nonchalantly about popular-kid stuff, but otherwise the group makes no conversation at first. They instead sit in tense silence, punching the clock begrudgingly.

Then, in comes Vice Principal Vernon, a miserable middle-ager with a stick up his ass. “You’re going to write an essay,” Vernon barks. “No less than 1,000 words.” The essay is supposed to be an exercise in self-examination, but Vernon knows that the kids will blow it off -- just as well, since he takes perverse delight in condemning them anyway. But the only student who protests verbally is John, tartly sarcastic as always.

“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” he asks, eyeing Vernon’s questionable leisure suit.

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