Monday, September 9, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Pretty in Pink" (1986)

John Hughes' teen movies were bubble gum wrapped in shiny paper, containing a lot of sweet, juicy stuff with a bitter center. He told stories about teenagers not as how society saw them, but as how they saw themselves. He identified with the school misfits, but he understood the cool kids enough that he didn't dismiss their challenges as inconsequential.

The pop music cues, the likeable teen stars, the old-fashioned love triangle plot devices -- he used it all to draw in an audience of young people, ostensibly to entertain them, but really to show them a self-portrait that is flawed and glorious.

"Pretty in Pink" is an imperfect film with a pure heart. After the success of "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," Hughes cast his personal ginger-haired muse, Molly Ringwald, in perhaps his most bleak and ambitious film to date.

I know some people might spit up at seeing "bleak" and "John Hughes" in the same sentence. But strip away the pop songs, the winsome actors and the puppy-dog love story, and the universe in which "PiP" is set is a pretty dreary one.

The school is divided along sharp lines into "richies," over-privileged offspring of wealthy families, and everybody else. The rich kids eat lunch inside in the cafeteria, while the students who are poor or rough around the edges are relegated to the outdoor rec area. It's self-imposed segregation, and there are people on both sides eager to enforce the invisible lines of division.

Heroine Andie (Ringwald) is the single child of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), who works itinerantly but whose main vocation is staying in bed and feeling sorry for himself. His wife left him three years ago, and though he puts up a brave face for the daughter he adores, he's drowning. Andie pushes him to find full-time work and a purpose in life.

Andie is smart and, unlike Ringwald's previous roles in Hughes films, not a shrinking violent. When she's picked on my obnoxious richie girls (Kate Vernon and Gina Gershon), she fights back. Lacking funds, Andie makes her own clothes -- the source of the teasing -- with pink included in virtually every outfit.

She has a job working at a hip music store run by Iona, who's about twice Andie's age but acts as her big sister and coach. Iona has a different hairstyle every time we see her, starting with a spiked mohawk and growing more conservative as the movie goes on. She's played by Annie Potts, a charismatic and outgoing presence, virtually unrecognizable from her nerdy role in "Ghostbusters."

Andie's perpetual wingman is Duckie (Jon Cryer), the misfit of misfits, who's been her friend/hanger-on since childhood. Duckie is ravishingly in love with Andie, but to her face he makes a joke of it, talking about his undying love for her and unconditional devotion as a punchline. He dresses like a clown, with mismatched patterns and accessories, but deep down Duckie wants Andie to take him seriously.

Worlds collide when richie Blane (Andrew McCarthy) is smitten with Andie, eventually building up to a date for the prom. When Duckie realizes she's really going to go out with the enemy, he unloads on Andie, resulting in the movie's most famous line: "His name is Blane? That's a major appliance, that's not a name!"

The biggest problem with the film is that the Andie/Blane romance never really takes off. We only get to see them spend any substantive time together in two scenes: their disastrous first date, where they each visit the others' home turf and are in turn rejected by their friends, and a brief second fling where they sneak onto his horse riding club.

McCarthy's performance is ... discomforting. He smiles and stutters, trying to play a character who is inherently descent but pals around with loathsome toads like his best friend Steff, played with delicious malevolence by James Spader.  The idea is supposed to be that although Blane comes from a world where everything is taken for granted, he hasn't let it rub off on himself.

Honestly, Blane's creepy as all get out. In the film he has a serial-killer vibe, reminding me of Christian Bale in "American Psycho." His good manners and charm seem like a skillfully-constructed veil that I kept waiting to drop.

The plot wheezes and cranks to its conclusion: Blane gives into peer pressure to dump his girlfriend from "the wrong side," but they have a revelation at the prom, where Duckie, acting as her date and protector, urges her to go after Blane. As many people already know, the original ending has her choosing Duckie over Blane. But knowing that Duckie is the perpetual loser adds poignancy to his depiction.

I find the film more engaging for its little moments and its well-drawn characters than the story paces it puts them through. Spader, despite having fairly limited screen time, breathes life and subtlety into Steff that isn't immediately apparent. Steff had made numerous lecherous advances to Andie over the years and been rebuffed, and can't stand the idea of someone he sees beneath him as standing up to him.

Cryer has one outstanding scene as Duckie, where he lets down his guard of self-mockery, and steels himself to tell Andie how he really feels. But he loses his nerve and lets the other guy get his girl.

Indeed, the entire theme of the movie is about people reconciling themselves to the gap between their dreams and reality. "Pretty in Pink" may not be John Hughes' best film, but in some ways it is his most enduring. He loved to disguise his lessons as confections.

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