The Birthday Series – Weird Science (1985)
The saga continues. As I’m approaching yet another birthday (sigh!), it’s time to celebrate the films that were lucky enough to be released at the start of August. 1985 gave us John Hughes’ take on the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘Weird Science’.
I’m a big fan of John Hughes’ 80’s films. He created a CV filled with great comedies, and also brought a distinctive voice that defined a genre. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of my favourite comedies of all time, but it was his teen movie trifecta Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club that took the sleaze out of movies aimed at teen’s and replaced it with knowing and heart. The strongest aspect of his teen films is that they don’t exploit teenagers and portray them all as crass, moronic, sex-obsessed misfits. Hughes was able to identify with the awkward years, the problems, the pressure and the hurry to grow up. Why, at that age, are we in a rush to grow up? Being a grown up sucks. Work, bills, responsibility. Where’s the fun in that? Hughes knew that every teenager thinks their problem is the biggest problem anyone’s ever faced, and that no one understands, especially not adults, and he created a body of work that showed teen’s that their problems were not unique to themselves. They were universal. Teens had faced the same problems before, and they will face them again. They will survive their teenage years.
‘Weird Science’ sticks out like a sore thumb against his other films. This is not to say it doesn’t deal with the traditional John Hughes themes, but it’s the only film that embraces fantasy. All his other films are based in a plausible reality, and the comedy is mostly based around observation. ‘Weird Science’ begins the same way, but very quickly becomes a special effects fantasy, with outrageous set pieces, and physical, slapstick humour. Doing so, it loses a lot of the Hughes charm along the way.
Gary and Wyatt (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) are unpopular nerds in Shermer, Illinois. After being humiliated (for the umpteenth time, I’m guessing) in front of a gymnasium full of girls they come up with a scheme to create the perfect woman on a computer. A simulation that will provide them with the answers to all their questions on the most important problem facing a teenage boy… How to get girls. Naturally, the boys scan in playboy centrefolds and lingerie catalogues, but in a savvy move they also scan in theories by Einstein, sports knowledge, and pop culture interests. They want this chick to be smart and cool as well. Needing more juice than a 1985 computer can provide, they tap into a local mainframe, creating a power surge and electrical storm. Frankenstein’s monster appears, in the shapely form of Lisa (Kelly LeBrock). “What would you little maniacs like to do first?”
‘Weird Science’ doesn’t work for me. It’s far too manic, too slapstick, too loud, and too handicapped by it’s special effects. It loses sight of the central thrust of the story, which is about Gary and Wyatt becoming confident in themselves, standing up to bullies and learning to relate to girls. It’s weighed down by it’s huge set piece, the house party which takes up most of the films second half. Featuring another electrical storm, leatherclad mutant bikers, a nuclear missile and the veritable demolition of the house, the characters get lost in the mayhem. The first 15-20 minutes are the strongest, where Gary and Wyatt deal with Wyatt’s obnoxious older brother Chet (a gap toothed Bill Paxton), and two obnoxious bullies (a gap toothed Robert Downey Jr and some normal toothed guy), and decide to create the perfect woman. These scenes are easily the most entertaining of the film, typical of Hughes’ style, until the special effects take over and dominate the rest of the film.
Despite these problems, there are pleasures to be found. Kelly LeBrock makes Lisa more than just the dream woman, taking an almost big-sisterly role in the boys lives, nudging them in the direction of self-confidence. She’s a natural screen presence and provides warmth and humour to the film. It’s a good performance. However the leads aren’t quite so good. Anthony Michael Hall, so great in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, is intensely irritating at times. In particular, during a scene in a bar, where Gary and Wyatt get drunk and make friends with local toughs. In this scene, Hall speaks in a harsh, shrieking, nails on a chalk board mush mouth voice that makes every line of dialogue incredibly annoying. On the other hand, Ilan Mitchell-Smith doesn’t have presence enough to have much of an impact. He’s elbowed out by all the over the top performances and the special effects going on around him. Bill Paxton delivers some good laughs as Chet, particularly his reaction to finding his grandparents in then pantry, and an early role for Robert Downey Jr doesn’t amount to much.
While the film doesn’t work, the central concept of ‘Weird Science’ is a strong one. I like the innocence of the Frankenstein inspired premise of two awkward boys who create their dream woman on a computer, and instead of using her for sex, she’s more of a nurturing figure who advises them on girls and helps them gain the confidence they need to make it through their teenage years. I mention this, because ‘Weird Science’ was turned into a TV show in the mid 90’s, starring Vanessa Angel as Lisa, John Mallory Asher and Michael Manasseri as Gary and Wyatt, and most importantly, Lee Tergesen as Chet. This is an underrated show, taking the best parts of the film, which is the relationships between the characters, and combining it with the ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ template where each episode sees the boys make some sort of wish that gets them into a different scenario which resets at the end of each episode. There’s homages to classic films such as ‘Fantastic Voyage’, musicals like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and the ongoing gag of hiding the existence of Lisa from Chet. And it’s here where a lot of the best laughs generate. Tergesen is simply hilarious as Chet, nailing not only the obnoxiousness, but also the desperate confusion as Chet is repeatedly the punchline of jokes he doesn’t understand. The series ran for 5 seasons from 1994-98. If you ever run across it while flicking channels, I recommend you give it a look.
Remember to take some cake!