No. 41: Valley Girl

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As a piece of box office history, Valley Girl is an interesting item. Produced independently for around $350,000, Valley Girl was the first film ever picked up for distribution by the short-lived Atlantic label, which didn’t last through the ’80s but was responsible for two of the biggest independently-produced hits of the decade in Night of the Comet and Teen Wolf. Valley Girl’s box office total of 17.34 million made it one of the most profitable independent releases of the 1980s.

But more importantly, Valley Girl introduced several new elements (and a new star) into the pop culture lexicon. For one, it introduced the concept of the “valley girl” to the nation at large. The concept had already been articulated brilliantly by Frank Zappa in his 1982 song “Valley Girl” but it wasn’t until the film was released that the nation became aware of the stereotype, particularly the now infamous “Valspeak” slang.

Secondly, Valley Girl‘s soundtrack is considered a landmark moment for New Wave music. The genre was already hitting its peak of popularity in 1983 but Valley Girl‘s usage of the music sort of synthesizes a moment in time culturally on film.

But perhaps the film’s greatest revelation, and judging from the reviews of the time one that was not fully appreciated in 1983, was the introduction of a young and budding actor named Nicolas Cage. At the time, Cage’s only previous film role was a cameo in Fast Times at Ridgemont High under his birth name, Nicolas Coppola. The story goes that in order to avoid the appearance of nepotism, the young actor changed his last name to audition for a part in his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s film Rumble Fish. Cage earned the part and quickly moved on to film the much less prestigious Valley Girl, which ended up getting released a few months before Rumble Fish.

This may sound like one of those stories about an actor who before becoming famous took a part in a bad movie that he would later regret. That couldn’t be further from the truth. For my money, Cage’s work in Valley Girl is nothing to be embarrassed about. Not only is Cage’s performance just as quirky, interesting and authentic as anything else he’s done throughout his 27-year career but the fact that he wrung such an entertaining performance out of such a weak screenplay might perhaps make this performance one of his most impressive.

Cage plays Randy, a Hollywood punk (which means he has a little die in his hair and wears leather) who decides to crash a party full of rich, shallow kids from, where else, Valley High. Meanwhile, said party is also being attended by Julie (played by Deborah Foreman), who just recently dumped her totally grodie boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen). Randy and Julie see each other across the room and the Romeo & Juliet parallels can carry you the rest of the way through the story.

Before I continue any further, I have to talk about the character of Tommy. Tommy represents the first example on our list of one of my absolute favorite things about movies from the ’80s: The Douchebag Boyfriend. In many ways, the Douchebag Boyfriend is one of the key elements of the high school film. When what’s at stake in the story is high school love, social acceptance and an untainted sense of self-confidence, the Douchebag Boyfriend represents the ultimate threat to all three of those things. He is the ultimate figure of evil in the world of high school romantic comedy. To that end, Michael Bowen does a fantastic job of creating a perfectly, hilariously douchey bad guy. Bowen would later make a career out of being a douchebag, with memorable roles in Jackie Brown (as the bad cop to Michael Keaton’s good cop), Kill Bill (as Buck, who came to…) and “Lost” (as Juliet’s angry boyfriend).

But as with any teen-theme romantic comedy, the film hinges on the relationship between our Romeo & Juliet. After establishing how incredibly dull and shallow Julie and her friends are in the opening scenes, the movie quickly takes a surprising and refreshing turn by injecting Julie into Hollywood, a world of punk culture, New Wave music, rough streets and essentially different-thinking people. Julie becomes enamored with living life outside of the boring, superficial life she’s been a part of for so long and the film’s most memorable sequence gives us a montage of the two young lovers on a series of dates set to the New Wave classic “Melt With You” by Modern English. It’s a surprisingly effective moment and the chemistry between the two leads is palpable during their scenes together, which unfortunately are too few and far between.

The vast majority of the film’s running time has our hero and heroine separated, talking to their friends and family members about whether or not their relationship can work because of their differences. It’s during these sequences that the film really starts to drag and lose momentum. Cage brings such vibrancy and enthusiasm to every scene he plays that it seems to invigorate every other actor sharing the screen with him. The movie simply comes to life when Cage is on screen and when he’s not, the energy quickly drains out of the film.

Despite the movie’s hot and cold nature, I have to say I came away pleasantly surprised at how between a strong effort from a young Nicolas Cage and some thoughtful direction by young director Martha Coolidge, this clearly weak screenplay actually is able to produce some effective screen moments. If every other high school comedy I encounter during my Back to the Movies journey is as good as Valley Girl, I’ll have no problem sitting through them all. Unfortunately for me, I doubt that will be the case.

Next Up: Max Dugan Returns starring Jason Robards and Matthew Broderick.