I’m supposed to like The Breakfast Club. Or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Pretty in Pink has its charms. I understand the connoisseur’s choice is Sixteen Candles. But I like this one best.
It is not exactly controversial to like a John Hughes film. His Wikipedia page calls him the King of Teen Movies, which (although the source remains woefully unattributed) I am not about to argue with. He made the first film I ever watched in a proper cinema (Home Alone, 1990 in the Coliseum with a packet of mint poppets). And he also made a slew of other stuff I certainly don’t associate him with (he wrote Maid in Manhattan!). But although Some Kind of Wonderful came out in 1987 during his golden era, it’s pretty much the underdog.
Part of this can be explained that it arrived only a year after Pretty in Pink, that age old story of poor girl loved by both rich guy and poor guy who, despite mid-reel rejection by rich guy due to low social status, eventually ends up with him via some nifty dressmaking. PiP had been messed around with quite a bit in production, starting with Robert Downey Jr. (as the poor guy) being replaced by Jon Cryer (now starring in Two and a Half Men as the one who was never Charlie Sheen) which, as you can imagine, took quite a bit of the potential sex appeal away from that character and together with early negative test screenings forced a change to the storyline which had originally favoured poor girl and poor guy ending up together.
Hughes claimed this was to reject the subliminal messaging that you should stick with your own class in matters of the heart, but given the rich guy was a porridge coloured wet blanket of a person with no dress sense, you could tell his own heart wasn’t really in it. This explains why he went to all the trouble to essentially remake the film the next year to fix the problem. Unfortunately he stuck a little too closely to the original along the way, and thus he revisits a lot of material from PiP – apparently dysfunctional but secretly supportive family, intense pining, class struggles, the high school as a microcosm of 80’s society, immaculate blow-dries as an indicator of wealth – and even Molly Ringwald as the original star, though she fairly understandably turned him down and in the process, apparently killed her own career. In short, this was a man desperately seeking closure via a Director’s Cut. It says a lot about his profile that he was allowed to make a whole new film, really.
There are other reasons Some Kind of Wonderful never quite reached the culty heights of his other films. It suffers from the stalker vs secret admirer paradox (heroes are secret admirers, villains are stalkers, even while exhibiting exactly the same behaviour). Our hero (slash stalker) is introspective and shy rather than the irresistibly gobby Ferris Bueller type, and in fact the whole film is a lot more serious in tone than the gleeful freewheeling feel of some of his other films. There’s no memorable villain, the rich guy rival being a colourless stand-in for all rich guy rivals, and except for some beautiful shots of industrial Chicago, it’s much less visually arresting than some of his other films. Most crucially of all, no one lip syncs to catchy 80’s music at all. Ever. Not even once.
But despite all this it’s still my favourite. I like Eric Stoltz as Poor Guy Keith, a part-time mechanic obsessively sketching the best looking girl in school and dreaming of art school instead of the business degree his Dad is set on him getting in order to be ‘the first guy in this family who didn’t have to wash his hands after a day’s work’. Swapping the gender roles from PiP gives his sensitive, introspective artist an interesting contrast with his best friend and Poor Girl Watts, a tough-talking, tattooed, bra-less aspiring drummer who’s slogging her way through a debilitating crush on Keith while dealing with AWOL parents and the age-old high school side-eye for refusing to conform to female gender norms (represented here by unconventional underwear choices and lingering shots of the kind of clumpy patent brothel creepers than are now essential for hipster chicks everywhere).
I can’t find it in myself to like Amanda, Keith’s Rich Girl crush (and Marty McFly’s disturbingly flirty mom in Back to the Future) – who is in fact not a rich girl, but desperately trying to keep in the clique through a combination of a pretty face and slavish adherence to their codes of conduct, which seem be based directly on the ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ rule from Gladiator. But that doesn’t matter because crucially in this film neither does she, which is where it all went wrong for Pretty in Pink for me.
The subtle notes the actors hit in the film – Keith’s quiet rebellion, Watts’ helpless need to be close to him even while he’s unsuspectingly breaking her heart – make this film a much more believable one than the broader strokes of Pretty in Pink, even while in fact being much less realistic. In PiP, the finale takes place at a pretty modest looking prom rather than the lavish four course date that Keith sweeps Amanda around, taking in out of hours venues variously bribed and broken into including an art museum, an open air stadium and a fancy restaurant. This culminates in a house party at her ex-boyfriend’s place where Keith is scheduled to be beaten up, a fate he seems to have accepted though in the end we find out he has another plan up his sleeve.
The film is much more focussed on the internal lives of these kids than Pretty in Pink, which used the external influences of the fashion and music of 80’s sub-groups to shape its protagonist’s lives – PiP’s Andi and Duckie wear their own outrageous concoctions defiantly, hang out with new wavers and punks behind the school, are regulars at an underground club and have a cool job in an alternative record store with a sympathetic manager. They might not be fitting in at school, but they’ve found their own tribe outside of it, and there’s a definite culture welcoming them in. In Some Kind of Wonderful there doesn’t seem to be much culture at all, and Watts and Keith are just outliers, getting by until they can get out. There’s one brief scene in a club, although the clientele look pretty non-descript, and it’s more useful as a measure of how uncomfortable Keith looks (‘Since when do your parents let you go clubbing on school nights?’ wonders Watts, who looks much more at home). The only in-school sub-culture we see are the generic, if charming, leather clad thugs that Keith befriends in detention and uses to tip the balance in his favour at the climax of the film. Keith’s sister may call him ‘The weirdest guy in a huge school’ but that’s not true – as he says himself ‘in the eyes of everyone around here I’m a nothing’.
The very first scene sets up his character perfectly as he plays solitary chicken with freight trains. In another film it would be an act of teenage bravado but here his recklessness as he faces down a massive engine is in startling contrast to his blank face and diffident body language. This is a guy with a lot going on in his head, but up until he attains the coup of a date with the famous Amanda Jones and gains instant notoriety – among other things – he’s content to be an invisible dreamer, shrugging off the casual insults of the rich kids, working his garage job, hiding out in the art studio and generally accepting the status quo.
Until suddenly he doesn’t. In the end, I think I like this film because it’s not so much about getting the girl of your dreams – Keith doesn’t cotton on to Watts until the last three minutes (despite an unreasonably hot kissing lesson), and even Amanda points out his infatuation is more about the idea of her than who she really is – but of working out where your boundaries are, what you’ll fight for. Keith and Watts have spent their high school lives acting like prisoners whose parole is coming up – keep your head down, don’t make waves and eventually you’ll be allowed to leave – but the tipping point of the film is Keith reaching the end of his patience with himself, a quiet person making a series of loud gestures – ask the girl out, face up to the bullies, find an unlikely group of allies, spunk your savings, confront your Dad.
In making these big choices Keith breaks out of the boxes that high school – as all Hughes’ films tell us – forces you into, and that makes it a bigger movie than Pretty in Pink, which was only ever interested in Andi’s romantic life. Keith, walking quietly home in the dark with Watts, finds himself in a world transformed from the one he was drifting through at the start of the film. And it’s another one of John Hughes’ inspired soundtrack choices that plays them out – a frenetic speeded up celtic flavoured rock version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ which, clashing with the peaceful visuals, seems to be the musical equivalent of the whole movie – a quiet outer face wrapped around a shouting, defiant inner core.
It would have been even better with some lip syncing, mind.