Stepping Out (and Stepping Back in Time) With a Few ‘Modern Girls’

A flashy relic from the '80s, Modern Girls is full of unrelenting, heedless energy, moving from setpiece to setpiece like a demented Bob Fosse number performed along Sunset Strip.

A Night on the Town

Unfairly panned upon its 1986 release, Modern Girls, a comedy caper in the vein of Desperately Seeking Susan, remains one the ‘80s most emblematic films of the vacuously hip LA nightlife. Much like Susan Seidelman’s 1985 screwball comedy, which would further project its star Madonna into the public consciousness of the mini mall generation, Modern Girls aims for the same punkishly contrived thrills, but without the complicated fuss of a murder-mystery subplot.

Three lady friends, who spend their lives working away dispassionately in dead-end jobs, make plans one Friday evening to hit the town clubbing. Hoping to worm their way into the city’s hottest and trendiest nightspots, Cece (Cynthia Gibb), Kelly (Virginia Madsen) and Margo (Daphne Zuniga) doll themselves up for an evening of their usual bar-hopping exploits.

But pretty soon, a few hitches undo their plans for a night out. It seems Kelly, who hasn’t yet arrived back at the apartment because she’s too busy chasing after a popular nightclub DJ, has forgotten all about her date for the evening, Clifford (Clayton Rohner). Clifford shows up at the girls’ apartment only to be told by Cece and Margo that Kelly simply forgot about her date that evening. Disappointed, Clifford hangs around the apartment while Cece and Margo get dressed for clubbing. As they’re ready to leave, the girls invite the reluctant Clifford along, promising him that they will later meet up with Kelly so that she may finally fulfill her commitments with him for their date.

Clifford is the uniformly square nerd to the girls’ fun-tastic, hedonistic night-rovers and he glumly expresses his social inadequacies as he chauffeurs the girls around town. In a silly subplot which cribs Desperately Seeking Susan’s storyline ruse of mistaken identity, a famous rock star named Bruno X – who happens to be a dead ringer for Clifford – lands in LA that evening to film a video for his new single. There’s some rumour that Bruno X (also played by Rohner) will be hitting LA’s hottest nightclubs and Cece, who’s determined to bed the rock star, drags Margo and Clifford along in pursuit of her object of affection.

Trouble begins to brew when the gang later meets up with a half-drugged Kelly, who’s attracted some unwanted attention from a few unsavoury barflies, and when half the city mistakes nerdy Clifford for Bruno X, hounding his every move. The four hapless carousers spend the rest of the night on the run, bickering, dodging groupies and falling in love.

Modern Girls was never written to be high art; its flashy, new wave pop-art romance brings to the mid-‘80s a certain comic book aestheticism that plays for groans and laughs in only the most innocuous of ways. The problem with the film’s reception at the time of its release was that it was taken far more seriously than it really needed to be. There are indeed plot holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through, but the film’s charm lies in its unrelenting, heedless energy, moving from setpiece to setpiece like a demented Bob Fosse number performed along Sunset Strip.

Director Jerry Kramer (working from Laurie Craig’s script) saturates the film with the garishly neon-coloured lights of LA’s nightlife, resulting in a feature which sort of operates as a high-budgeted music video for the ‘80s MTV market. This is no bad thing; Modern Girls is so hyped up on its own absurdity and so shamelessly immersed in MTV pop culture that your only choice is to go along for the ride.

Actors Madsen, Gibb and Zuniga each work to give their respective characters a separate and distinguishable identity while playing to the common stereotypes of LA women that littered the town during the ‘80s: the lustful Monroe-wannabe, the punky upstart and the brainy, elegant pseudo-goth. Rohner makes a good likable nerd, a grounding moral pivot who knows when to help out and when to shut-up and stay out of the way.

You have to hand it to Kino Lorber for retrieving this lost gem. Razed by critics during its initial release, Modern Girls was consigned to languish in the vaults of obscurity, its only crime being one of joyful self-indulgence. If you weren’t convinced the first time around you saw it (if indeed there was a first time), Kino’s spectacular transfer may help you realize how integral the setpieces and location scenery are to the film. Much the way Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial-pop tour through New York’s Greenwich Village, Modern Girls is the LA equivalent; bold fluorescent colours pop like comic book art, making Sunset Boulevard seem more like a birthday party and less like the seedy danger-magnet it can sometimes be.

Despite some occasional softness, Kino’s transfer captures beautifully the colour and lighting contrasts to deliver a picture crisp, clear and evenly toned. It’s a remarkable improvement over Warner Archives’ DVD release of a few years back.

Sound, music and dialogue come through clearly. This is another great improvement over the DVD release as the DVD had some issues with sound clarity. Since Modern Girls’ soundtrack features a who’s who of ‘80s new wave music blaring out of every club and car stereo in the film (including Depeche Mode’s pop-euphoria “But Not Tonight”), audio is of crucial importance. Sound levels are nicely balanced and there’s no distortion. Included on the disc are optional English subtitles.

Extras on the Blu-ray release include an interview with actor Clayton Rohner discussing the making of the film. It’s a little disappointing that the other actors couldn’t get on board to contribute; in particular, Zuniga, who would become a staple of television in the years following, must have an interesting perspective on a decade in which many studios tried to break her as a leading woman, Modern Girls being one project in such a case.

No other supplements, lamentably, are featured on the release. The Blu-ray artwork must be mentioned, however, as Kino Lorber wisely decided to stick with the film’s original film poster art, fetchingly styled like a frame from a comic book. If the premise of the film alone isn’t enough to push units, a nifty packaging like that just might.

Modern Girls came and went in 1986 with nary a stir. Having been rescued from the purgatory of film studio vaults, it can be appreciated today for what it was always intended to be: a silly, glitzy romp through an elongated music video. The film was torn to shreds by Roger Ebert, who called it “a movie without a brain in its head.” But in hindsight, even a normally astute observer of film like Ebert seems to have missed the point: Modern Girls is flashy, sugary, empty-caloried fun — it’s got all the nutritional value of a Hostess cupcake but it tastes too good to turn down.

RATING 8 / 10