After an entire decade of nonstop irony during the 90s I felt like I was already done with snarky references to 80s pop culture. Then once VH1 systematically mined the decade, year by year, for every possible comment and quip that an army of B list comedians could come up with for I Love the 80s, I was certain that the book on the subject had been closed. At least until last year when we got the mediocre Hot Tub Time Machine, which went for every cheap 80s joke in the book, and suddenly the door was once again open to make fun of the decade of excess. I dreaded watching Take Me Home Tonight. I could not watch all of the same jokes regurgitated, yet again. How happy was I then, when this didn’t turn out to be that sort of movie at all? Super happy.
Take Me Home Tonight has less in common with comedies like the aforementioned hot tub movie or something like Sandler’s The Wedding Singer and more in common with movies about young people from another decade like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. It bathes itself in an 80s aesthetic, but it doesn’t ever shine a spotlight on the trends and tropes in order to exploit them for laughs. This isn’t so much a comedy about the 80s as it is a comedy set in the 80s. The trailers really do it no favors, so don’t walk into it with a bad attitude like I did.
A little plot synopsis before we get too far in. This is one of those Characters Coming Together at a Party and Experiencing a Life Changing Night movies. Usually these things take place either right before high school graduation or at the ten-year reunion. But this one changes things up a bit by taking place somewhere in between those two milestones. This is that gray area a handful of years after high school where some people have started to hit as successful adults and others are still trying to figure things out. Our protagonist is Matt (Topher Grace) and he’s decidedly one of those guys who doesn’t have things figured out. He has a less neurotic twin sister played by Anna Farris, a mini Sam Kinison of a best friend played by Dan Fogler, and a long time crush played by Teresa Palmer. His sister’s preppy boyfriend (Chris Pratt) is throwing a big party that everyone from the old days is going to show up at, and for one reason or another this is the last chance Matt has to make an impression and bag his old crush.
Seeing as the plot is something that you’ve seen a million times before, the burden of the film’s success largely lies in the laps of its comedic performances. Topher Grace is strong as the lead. He is forced to come from behind (which is kind of surprising seeing as he has a story credit) because of how his character is written. He is such a doormat, such a self-sabotaging little wimp for so much of the movie, that it becomes a real chore to stay invested in his romantic struggles and hope for his eventual success. But Topher is able to play the victim well enough that he brings you around by the end of the film. There is one point where he tries to impress his lady love with a joke, realizes that the joke is lame, and literally begins to cry mid joke delivery, that I thought was absolutely brilliant. It’s the little things that can keep you invested in a character even when he’s conceptually frustrating.
Dan Fogler is maybe the exact definition of hit and miss in this movie. He is the broad comedy of the film, and every second he is on screen he is throwing every bit of caution to the wind. When he hits he is among the funniest bits of comedy that Take Me Home Tonight has to offer. But when he misses, he falls pretty squarely on his face. The good news is that by the end of the film his batting average is over 500. Anna Farris doesn’t work so well as the sister. It’s not her fault so much as it is all of her horrible plastic surgery’s fault. Does that sound mean? Regardless, she looks like an absolute mess and it comes down to her character to shoulder a lot of the dramatic moments in the script. I can handle her playing the clown, the over the top, comic interpretation of a bleach blonde, brainless bimbo. But she has given up her right to play a real person.
Teresa Palmer impressed me as the dream girl. Her character is written pretty lazily; she’s the typical angel from heaven who is out of the protagonist’s league yet has infinite patience for his many foibles for no other reason than the script requires her to. But Palmer plays the part to perfection. She is pretty, she is charming, and she is open and approachable. I can’t imagine sitting through this whole movie and not having a crush on her by the end. And when you break it all down that was pretty much her job. Also, it’s not so much one of the main performances of the film, but it should be mentioned that Demetri Martin shows up as the wheel chair bound Carlos and manages to steal the entire film with just a few minutes of screen time.
Where the film doesn’t do so well is the moments where it goes from raunchy comedy to heart stabbing drama. For a bit of an example, imagine Topher Grace delivering this line to Anna Farris, “I’ve read your short stories. They’re amazing.” Yeah, that’s sort of embarrassing. By the time the film moves into its third act, lame dialogue like this abounds. Every time it tries to go from nihilistic party comedy to memorable drama about characters that you love, things don’t end so well. The most egregious example of false drama comes from the conceit of “the ball” that plays out throughout the film. “The ball” is a big ball of welded together sheet metal that gets pushed down a steep hill with someone inside of it. There’s a lot of talk about who will ride the ball: will anyone ride the ball? It’s a strange, random thing to introduce into a movie and it reeked of a screenwriting process that had no idea how to organically create a climax. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but somebody decides to ride in it and subsequently changes their nature permanently. I didn’t buy it either.
The Upside: This film is largely supposed to be a comedy and its jokes hit far more often than they miss, often creating a satisfyingly side splitting experience.
The Downside: All of the dramatic elements fall flat, guaranteeing that this won’t be mentioned in the same breath as its inspirations American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. The characters just don’t resonate well enough to be lasting.
On the Side: Topher Grace, who had both a producer and a story by credit, said that most of the actors performed according to the script. Except for Demetri Martin who went completely off script and improvised the bulk of his scene stealing performance. Spinoff?