No. 32: Class

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.

Looking down the list of the top 50 box office grossers in 1983, it’s clear that the early ’80s were the absolute heyday of the teen sex comedy genre. We haven’t seen many on our countdown so far (Valley Girl is the only film we’ve reviewed so far that fits the genre) and that’s because they were almost universally successful at the box office, no matter if the cast was star-studded or loaded with unknown newcomers. Making an R-rated film that is specifically aimed at people who technically aren’t allowed to see them (teenagers) has always been a profitable strategy at the movies and remains so today. While sneaking in was probably an option some kids explored, I imagine that simply walking up and buying a ticket to an R-rated movie, whether you’re 17 or not, probably wasn’t that difficult back in 1983.

Regardless of the particulars, it’s clear that making movies about teenagers having sex was a good formula in ’83. As with any genre, filmmakers approached this idea in different ways. Some went for the outright easy sell – gross-out humor, plenty of T&A and some plot involving the teenagers getting one over on the adults. We’ve got a few films that probably fit that description ahead of us on our countdown.

But some filmmakers saw the potential for legitimately interesting storytelling in the teen sex comedy genre and made a genuine effort to tell a story with some relate-able qualities, typically a coming of age story. It’s clear that with Class, director Lewis John Carlino (who helmed 1979 Oscar-nominee The Great Santini) was going for a combination of different tones and ideas, some comedic and some dramatic. Unfortunately, none of those elements ever mesh together and rather than compliment each other, they get in each other’s way.

Before I go any further I should issue a spoiler-free explanation of why the next paragraph will contain a spoiler alert. The screenplay for Class is setup in such a way that a certain revelation about the relationships between the characters appears to have been intended to be a shocking surprise. However, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his rather scathing review at the time, everything about the way the film was marketed both in 1983 and today via the description on the sleeve of my Netflix disc, is meant to state this revelation as the premise of the movie. Ebert criticized this tactic saying that knowing that information going into the film immediately colors everything about the plot in irreversible ways and thus seems to pull a lot of the tension out from under the film from the very beginning.

(SPOILER ALERT!) That revelation/premise is that one of our main characters falls in love with a woman who turns out to be the other main character’s mother. Everything from the trailer (posted below) to the poster (which you’ll also see on the left hand side of this post) give this plot point away, yet in the context of the film it is played as a huge surprise twist. Very little has been written about the film and its production so it’s unclear whether revealing this detail beforehand was approved by the director or not but Ebert’s absolutely right; it does color your thinking on every scene in the film, including the scene where our two leads meet.

Andrew McCarthy plays the sensitive, bookish Jonathan who arrives as a transfer student to a posh all-boys prep school. Class was the screen debut for McCarthy who would go on to become one of the biggest names of the ’80s (St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie’s) and his star quality is evident even in his first performance. McCarthy manages to pull off sympathetically vulnerable while avoiding pathetic, whiny or helpless. It’s a rare feat for sensitive-type leading men.

Also making their screen debuts, albeit in much smaller roles, are John Cusack, Alan Ruck (a.k.a. Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Virginia Madsen. As with McCarthy, Carlino was lucky enough to find these incredibly likable young guys just as they were hitting their stride. Cusack shows every bit of the sarcastic confidence he displays throughout his career. There’s almost no differentiation in the quality of the performance he gives in Class from the performance he gives in Hot Tub Time Machine. It appears that early on, Cusack found something that worked for him and he’s stuck with it with remarkable consistency.

Another actor we get a glimpse of very early in his career is our second lead, Rob Lowe. Unlike the actors mentioned above, Lowe appears to still be looking for his niche as an actor and while he’s clearly got a great feel for his role, he’s just not quite the right fit for his role, the brash, overconfident, somewhat rebellious Skip. Lowe’s performance is still strong and we feel legitimately bad for him knowing what’s coming down the pike for the majority of the film.

The film works best when all these young actors are on screen together, enjoying themselves and playing off each other with remarkable ease. These light, comedic scenes work really well and are sadly too few and far between.

Instead, the movie drifts towards two more dramatic storylines, neither of which ever get resolved in a satisfactory way. On the one hand is our romantic storyline, involving McCarthy and Jacqueline Bissett, intended to be a younger-man-with-older-woman relationship but becomes unbelievable as Bisset’s character becomes so irrational that it’s hard to even buy McCarthy’s continued attraction to her.

The second storyline follows a state investigator looking into an SAT cheating scandal that jeopardizes Jonathan’s chances at making it to Harvard. While the resolution doesn’t really make any sense, at least this subplot gives us two things: a chance to spend some more time with the prep school guys and a really fun and creepily calm performance from Stuart Margolin as the SAT investigator.

The end of the movie is terribly preposterous and poorly handled but thanks to some strong performances and good dialogue between the two male leads, we actually do find ourselves caring about how Jonathan and Skip resolve their conflict. It’s a shame that such an energetic and effective young cast was largely squandered in a movie that puts them in the background far too often but the fun glimpse at all these young stars (including a brief cameo from Joan Cusack as well) is enough of a novelty for me as a 2010 viewer to make it an interesting watch.

Next Up: Yet another teen sex comedy, My Tutor featuring Crispin Glover.