Movie review: “Sixteen Candles” (1984)

sixteen

“Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?”

For someone whose work is so often rightly lauded for portraying teenagers in a three-dimensional, sympathetic but non-patronizing light – “realistic”, in critical shorthand – it turns out the late John Hughes was also a hearty proponent of brazen wish fulfillment. To wit: in a fit of pique, Home Alone’s eight-year-old Kevin McAllister wished his family would disappear, and off they rushed the next morning to Paris, without him. Andie Walsh and Keith Nelson, of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, overlooked the unrequited loves parked right in front of their faces in favor of dogged, unlikely, shockingly successful romantic pursuits of the most popular boy and girl in school respectively. I’ve long contended that the only reason everyone in The Breakfast Club didn’t leave Saturday detention with a brand new significant other on his or her arm was that the group itself was an odd number. Ferris Bueller is, in his most self-indulgent moments, a charming, erudite mixture of James Dean and Harry Houdini, a shining beacon to dreamers and/or truants the world over. Gary and Wyatt of Weird Science created the superhuman woman of their dreams by feeding fashion magazine snippets into the apparent pinnacle of mid-80s home computing firepower, threw an epic, dimension-bending party that turned them from social pariahs into rock stars – and didn’t even get stuck with the cleanup – then parlayed their rising fortunes further into the surprise acquisition of legitimate – if one note and not particularly observant, or choosy – long term girlfriends. Even Clark Griswold got to skinny-dip with Christie Brinkley, for heaven’s sake, and not only did it not cost him his marriage, it actually strengthened it.

sixteen candles posterWish fulfillment is a vein that runs deep into the often goofy but largely unsentimental terrain of 1984’s Sixteen Candles. It’s a sneaky, admittedly minor equivocation, one that has for some reason only recently, after entirely too many viewings growing up, begun actively tarnishing the film in my estimation*, perhaps because it just feels patently unearned. The movie sets up initially as the story of Samantha Baker (Hughes’ go to muse Molly Ringwald**), a perfectly typical high school sophomore whose life is thrown into turmoil when her distracted family accidentally forgets her sixteenth birthday, though it actually has additional stealth protagonists. Samantha, an early prototype of the preferred Hughes hero(ine) – an overlooked or underestimated social outsider, blessed/cursed with personal style, quirky, uncertain, but hopeful, steeped in teenage angst but possessed of untapped reserves of resiliency – begins her sweet sixteen convinced it is predestined, by its very nature, to be “platinum”, but is brought swiftly and rudely back to Earth by the harried obliviousness of her family. To be fair, they are neck deep in the logistics and lead up to her older sister’s wedding, inconveniently scheduled for that weekend. Once she arrives at school, the indignities for Samantha pile up. First, she is pressured into anonymously revealing the identity of her crush via one of those mash-note surveys that I suppose teenage girls were always exchanging back in the days before texts and IM. Sam loses track of the note in the very act of passing it, inadvertently rerouting it into the hands of the crush himself, ostensibly soulful, vacant-eyed pretty boy Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). The rest of her school day is part haze, part nightmare, as she takes time out from a steady diet of conceptualizing/ fretting over her own ample future shame to ponder the in-your-face perfection of Jake’s wicked girlfriend Caroline (Haviland Morris), then is accosted on the bus ride home by Ted (an impossibly young-looking Anthony Michael Hall), a smooth-talking but socially awkward would-be lothario who is listed in the film’s credits not by his Christian name but, simply, instructively, as “The Geek”.

*Gun to my head, I’ve long identified it as my favorite Hughes movie, even though “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is more fun, “The Breakfast Club” is theoretically deeper, and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is just objectively better, though that one loses a point, perhaps unfairly, for being a movie about grownups.

**Would that make her a “Mughes”?

Up to this early point, Sixteen Candles has been a mixed bag, quick moving and reasonably quick-witted (both aspects will improve dramatically), clever in its background details but rudimentary in its foreground brushstrokes. Sam’s initial encounter with The Geek – it’s not so much a conversation as a broken siege attempt – represents the first of several points at which the film decidedly pivots away from expectations and toward something both richer and more elusive. The Geek’s lumbering approach down the school bus aisle toward his unsuspecting quarry is heralded on the soundtrack – still the Hughes standard-bearer – with the dramatic rumble and blare of the famous main title theme to Dragnet. He pauses as if sizing Sam up, beams a brace-ridden smile of approval, and plops down in the seat behind her, a slew of honey-tipped come-ons poised for immediate deployment. Both actress and director deserve recognition, here and throughout, for the clarity with which they see Samantha, who, while appealing enough, is particularly self-centered, even for a Hughes lead, frustrated, and not a little whiny, the day’s circumstances notwithstanding. Goaded into a defensive posture by her overbearing but harmless junior Romeo, Sam instead assumes the attack, and her focused disdain leaves him reeling though, tellingly, even more intrigued than when he began. It’s a deft little verbal duet between Ringwald and Hall that plays out not unlike a fencing match, with thrusts, parries, and ripostes, and builds up Sam’s heretofore vulnerable exterior noticeably even as it softens The Geek’s. The two will resume hostilities later that night, at and around the edges of a standard edition high school dance.

Freed momentarily from The Geek’s orbit, Sam’s remaining day takes a sharp turn toward the surreal. She arrives home to find it overrun by visiting relatives, her bedroom with its independent phone line – a holy grail-like totem to a 1984 teenager – co-opted by one of her pairs of grandparents and her little brother’s room, to which she flees, inhabited by an outwardly respectful but sexually repressed Chinese foreign exchange student (the great Gedde Watanabe as the immortal “Long Duk Dong”). Sparked by the sparring session on the bus, the film now kicks into another gear, and marvelous life, with its textbook definition of a quirky cast fully revealed. The night to come, at the dance and the house party after, will be revelatory for all involved. Still hopelessly smitten by the idea of Jake, Samantha finds herself unprepared for the reality of him, when, after she catches his eye and he actually flashes her a smile, she flees the dance floor in reflexive horror. Our Samantha Baker, she of the perpetually rolling eyes, is seemingly forever fleeing somewhere to dramatically regroup. Though Jake alone adorns her imagination, repeatedly, interminably, she instead encounters The Geek, whose own efforts at seduction have been redoubled by an ill-advised, face-saving wager with his pair of hero-worshipping geek friends. Under the hot spotlight of public pressure, The Geek is a chaotic clamoring of increasingly desperate measures, trying to catch Sam’s eye with, by turns, spastic dance moves, witty banter, and, finally, in a simultaneously funny and poignant moment, heartfelt pleas to the dead air she had until just recently occupied. When he later tracks her down in the abandoned auto shop (“Sorry about what happened out there,” he offers anemically. “I had no idea you couldn’t dance.”), the resulting conversation, their first actual two-way dialogue in four attempts, is both the movie’s turning point and emotional centerpiece. Sam, exhausted from a day of disappointment and aggrievement, finally, grudgingly, lets her guard down, and Ted, against all odds, reveals himself as someone simply, and sincerely, worth talking to.

Hall, who doesn’t play The Geek so much as embody him (revel in his exaggerated response when Jake tells him to “relax”), does a magnificent job here of showing Ted thinking on his feet, displaying an underplayed, winning confidence in private that is at total odds with his artificial bravado outside it. It’s also nice to see Sam brighten, as the news that everyone has problems, even on her forgotten sixteenth birthday, sinks in and smooths over rougher stretches of road for a moment. Even at her most difficult, Ringwald refuses to dumb Sam down, and her presence and performance infuse the character with added dimension and appeal. Whereas “The Geek” hunts well above his league, with a batting average that would be frankly laughable out of context, Ted allows his core accessibility to finally see daylight and, by extension, subtly encourages Sam to open up as well. Having encountered Jake while exiting the dance floor, Ted has an interesting bit of gossip to impart, one that sets him and Sam off on divergent tracks winding toward the unlikely wish fulfillment I mentioned earlier. The auto shop encounter is a marvelously constructed sequence, one of the best written in Hughes’ career and perfectly realized by Ringwald and Hall, balancing moments of physical comedy with genuine feeling, awkwardness with understated revelation. However pivotal, Samantha and Ted only share four scenes, and when they part ways, she to an early night sleeping on the couch and he to a party at Jake Ryan’s house, Sixteen Candles becomes as much his story as hers, and all the better for that narrative split. It might seem I’ve overly dwelt on plot points here, but I don’t think any of it should spoil or even particularly dampen Sam’s journey. The rest of Ted’s night, as, with typical brio, he attempts to assimilate and mingle at a “senior party”, is chock full of surprises I won’t even hint at. Also in play are Jake, Caroline, and Long Duk Dong, the first an entrenched alpha dog beginning to seriously rethink the requirements of popularity, the second a snooty prom queen-type who thoroughly reinforces audience expectations before subverting them, and the third a demur wallflower turned party animal turned cautionary tale, even if that tale merely concerns basic automotive responsibility and first time hangovers. And there’s still a wedding to come!

Hughes’ pet themes and approaches to exploring them tended to calcify over time, to the point that he’d long since run out of new things to say about teenagers by the time he finally stopped making movies about them, but Sixteen Candles is a near perfect amalgamation of everything he does well, melding the overtly sociological, the hammy, and the profound, and shot through with a first time director’s abundant creativity and evident joy. Even in spare, early moments when the story doesn’t hold up so well, or the characters are comparatively backgrounded to plot mechanics, the film is compulsively watchable based on its avalanche of quirky details, which set it apart not only from the remaining Hughes catalogue but just about every other teenage comedy. Witness Jake’s exhaustive chin-up regime in the school gym, or the mismatched wrestling match going on behind him, mid-song calisthenics from the overly enthusiastic dance DJ, an onboard kazoo orchestra playing an impromptu concert as the bus pulls up to its stop, or, indeed, any of the film’s numerous wonderful musical cues*** – not just the aforementioned Dragnet, but the Twilight Zone theme as Sam creeps into her now grandparent-laden bedroom, the “Love Theme” from The Godfather as Sam’s parents have dinner with the shady, possibly-connected parents of the groom, or the Peter Gunn theme as the camera slow-pans down a long row of geeks taking their ceremonial place on the sidelines at the school dance. There are also less flippant details in the characters he doesn’t linger on. As Sam’s frazzled father, veteran character actor Paul Dooley gets a nice moment to shine as he shares a late night heart to heart with his daughter. As Caroline, Haviland Morris, who would go on to battle gremlins in 1990, ably portrays all aspects of her party girl character, not just the easy ones. I lack the stature to credibly comment on just how offensive the being/misadventures of Long Duk Dong might be to the Asian community, but I do concede the potential problem. Even as it used him to pander for perhaps its only lazy laughs, I always thought the film seemed to have ample love for the ingenue turned unbridled hedonist. No less a critical authority than the late Roger Ebert asserted that the talented Watanabe, “elevates his role from a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy.” I agree. I’d consider L.D.D. perhaps the sweetest, most relatable character in the movie.

***As someone with an extensive history of viewing “Sixteen Candles” across multiple mediums (TV, DVD, now Blu-Ray), I need to assert the importance of finding the right version, and, hence, the right soundtrack, for optimal enjoyment. Decades-long song rights issues have rendered the movie’s “official” soundtrack an obscure and jumbled mess, with hastily inserted alternate cues subbing poorly for so many of its excellent musical moments. It took me forever to gather the nerve to purchase the Blu-Ray for just this reason, but I can report that Universal’s “80s Class Reunion” version appears to be more or less intact, including all the pieces referenced above plus Ira Newborn’s title theme instead of some anonymous Kajagoogoo song. The Ultraviolet version, which I watched for this review, also definitely works. Insert sigh of relief here.

Hughes’ writing also falters somewhat in his conception of Jake. Though it’s easy to believe a jock a-hole would say heartless, highly problematic (ostensibly throwaway) things about a girlfriend he’d long since outgrown, it’s still at odds with the sensitive dreamboat he portrays in his climactic first verbal communication with Sam, and certainly doesn’t make him any more palatable as a potential romantic interest for a character we’re by now pretty invested in. Here, I guess we’re expected to forget about surly alpha-Jake in our rush of anticipation for wish fulfillment Jake, an evasion tactic that has just never sat well with me. I do like where and with whom The Geek winds up, even as it mightily strains credibility, but Sam’s half of the denouement always struck me as particularly clunky, even in the days when I was in unconditional love with the rest of the picture. Those days are apparently now behind me, but I still have near-boundless affection for Sixteen Candles, which is in so many ways the quintessential John Hughes film. I love how authentic it often feels beneath the artifice, and how expertly it splits the difference between crudeness and sweetness. I love the idea of turning two misfit teenagers floundering in the deep waters of high school into a squabbling platonic couple, blessing them with charm, self-awareness, and improbable aspirations, and then explicitly contrasting them with an established romantic couple at the top of the social food chain that has only recently begun to ponder what, who, and how much else is out there. I love how these characters start out in clearly-defined boxes they are eventually able to transcend, and how even the one that doesn’t quite still gets to grow. To me, this film is every bit as incisive as The Breakfast Club but with half the pretension, as off-the-wall creative as Weird Science with half the effects, as affecting as fellow Ringwald vehicle Pretty in Pink with half the ponderousness, and, yes, as entertaining as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with half the expended effort. Or less. At the heart of most Hughes films lies a near-unconditional love for his characters, particularly his protagonists, that is prominent and unshakeable enough to be a potential detriment. He’ll generally only ever let a character search so long, or stew, or twist, before he or she is invariably rewarded. I tend to love his characters too, enough that even I can feel strangely forgiving when, against the odds, all their wishes come true.

“Sixteen Candles” (1984) 3.5/4 stars                                                                                         dae3.5

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