Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mediocre Criticism of a Movie Most People Don't Care About

(I'm not really sure why you're still reading after a title like that, but, hey, onward.)

I really, really wanted to like Take Me Home Tonight. As soon as I saw the preview for the first time about a year ago, it seemed exactly like the type of movie I usually enjoy a lot more than I have any right to. It stars Topher Grace, who I have an almost unlimited amount of goodwill towards based on loving That 70’s Show as a kid and not watching it after it got awful, and features cameos from Michael Ian Black and Demetri Martin, two of my favorite comedians. It’s about kids who just graduated from college and don’t know exactly what to do with their lives, a topic that resonates pretty strongly with me for some reason. The action takes place almost entirely during one night and centers on young people trying to have fun, much like two of my favorite movies, Superbad and Dazed and Confused. And it takes place in the 80s, making it a very effective way for me to indulge my weakness for 80s pop hits.

So despite the tepid reviews and the fact that it was forgotten about seemingly moments after it was released to an already small amount of fanfare, I still wanted to see this movie pretty badly. Several months after it came out, I still wanted to see it pretty badly. A few days ago, I finally did.

And it was kind of disappointing. Not outright bad, but not great, and certainly not Superbad or Dazed and Confused (or American Graffiti, probably, but I haven’t seen that movie, so I can’t really compare the two). “Reasonably watchable,” as The New York Times review aptly described it. But I was hoping that at least for me—not just a member of the target audience, but a member who was eager enough for this movie to be good to ignore a lot of its flaws—it would prove more than “reasonably watchable.”

But it didn’t. Here are a few of the main reasons why:     

1. Topher Grace’s big speech: This was clearly meant to be the defining moment for his character/the film’s protagonist, Matt Franklin. It was supposed to be the climax of the film where he transformed from someone who was afraid to do anything into someone who was going to start making decisions in his life. And to symbolize that transition, we got a clich├ęd speech about why you shouldn’t pretend to be something you’re not that ends with, “Tonight I got one thing to say to all that bullshit. Fuck it.” And that’s it. It’s not entirely clear what the bullshit is or how we’re supposed to go about fucking it, but then Matt goes ahead and takes a risk and gets the girl and starts cutting down on carbs and etc. The speech could have worked as a semiserious drunken call to, say, continue partying, but it felt far too vague and artificial to actually represent a major change in the main character’s attitude and outlook on life.

2. Chris Pratt’s character is not such a bad guy: His character, Kyle Masterson, is supposed to be the dopey, overgrown frat boy who prevents Wendy Franklin—Matt’s twin sister and Kyle's girlfriend—from doing anything with her life by making her be his wife and nothing more. And he kind of is, but not in a “this guy is a huge asshole who absolutely deserves a comeuppance” kind of way. He’s genuinely excited to see Matt at the party. He doesn’t force Wendy to marry him; he just asks her, and she says yes. He gets upset when he finds out she applied to Cambridge for graduate school, but again, not in a villainous, I’m-trying-to-destroy-your-potential type of way but in a moderately reasonable I-don’t-want-my-girlfriend-who-I-just-proposed-to-and-bought-a-condo-with-to-move-to-England type of way. Granted, he’s a little happy when she doesn’t get in, which is undeniably a dick move. But is it enough of a dick move to warrant feeling gleeful when Wendy decides to turn down his marriage proposal a few hours after she had accepted it in front of hundreds of people they went to high school with? Maybe I’m having too hard of a time not viewing Chris Pratt as the eminently likeable Andy Dwyer on Parks and Rec, but I don’t think so. He’s kind of a jerk in Take Me Home Tonight, but not enough of one to serve as the de facto villain of the movie, which is how I felt the film was trying to portray him.

3. Matt’s dad seems proud of his son when he breaks laws and disappointed in him when he doesn’t: Bill Franklin starts out as a typical authority figure. The first time we see him, he’s sternly lecturing Matt at the dinner table about the need to find some direction in his life. Later, because he’s a cop and this is a movie, he and his partner happen to be the officers who run into Matt and his friend Barry Nathan after they’ve stolen and crashed a car. He asks Matt about the level of involvement he had in taking the car and actually seems disappointed when Matt says he left the dealership before Barry did the stealing. Later, after Matt has decided to take his first risk by “riding the ball,” (In the context of the film, this means literally getting rolled down a hill in a giant metal sphere, and it’s a big deal. Confusing, I know), Bill smiles when he finds Matt’s work ID in the yard that he landed in and destroyed. So the person who is giving Matt life advice is upset with him for not committing grand theft auto and proud of him for destroying the property of an innocent, law-abiding neighbor. It makes the earnest advice he gives him about the need to take a chance on something in life ring hollow.

4. “Are you going to Kyle Masterson’s party tonight?” This is a very, very small complaint, but when Tori Frederking—the hot popular girl who was Matt’s high school crush—asks him if he’s going to the party that’s the impetus for everything that happens in the movie, she uses the host’s full name. That’s not how hot popular girls refer to anyone they went to high school with. They only use first names because, since they’re popular and hot, they’re on a friendly, informal, first name basis with everyone. Using someone’s full name implies that they’re more important than you are. It’s one of the reasons we always refer to celebrities as, for instance, “Will Smith” instead of just “Will.”  So having a hot popular girl refer to a classmate by his full name sounds unrealistic and forced. This ruined very little about the movie but bothered me anyway.

Yes, there were more disappointing factors, but these are the ones that still stick out to me.

And now, because, damn it, I still like Topher Grace, and Demetri Martin was extremely funny in this movie as a wheelchair-bound, Goldman Sachs-employed asshole, and optimism is always more fun than pessimism, we’ll end on something about Take Me Home Tonight that I really liked and didn’t expect:

No one’s story wraps up too nicely at the end: Wendy doesn’t get into Cambridge. Barry gets fired from his job. Tori hates her job. These details all come out at some point during the movie, and although the characters appear upbeat and ready to keep trying at the conclusion, none of the aforementioned problems have been solved. Out of all the characters, Matt is the one who gets the strongest sense of closure, and even his plans don’t extend much further than traveling for a while. It’s a fun thing for a postgrad to do, but it doesn’t solve the problem of not knowing what to do with your life so much as it does postpone it. It would have been very easy for the filmmakers to have Wendy get into Cambridge and Barry get his job back and Tori quit her job and Matt find his perfect job, but none of these things happened because life doesn’t work that way. Problems don’t disappear because of one wild night, and you shouldn’t expect them to. Take Me Home Tonight seems to understand this, but, as the smiles on the characters at the end indicate, it also seems to understand that this doesn’t mean you have to go through life miserable.

It wasn’t Superbad; it wasn’t Dazed and Confused; it wasn’t even really that funny. But it had a good ending and a few good moments, so it watching it wasn’t a waste of time. And sometimes that’s all you get.

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