Some Kind of Wonderful
The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous. And no, I’m not forgetting Weird Science.
Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, thirty-passing-for-fifteen types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.
Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender-swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard Deutch, who also helmed Pretty) have their guy pick the right gal, as opposed to that movie, where Molly Ringwald superficially plumped for Andrew McCarthy over Jon Cryer.
True, there’s a touch of the impossibly sensitive about Eric Stoltz’s Keith Nelson, but he’s an appealing lead, and manages to avoid looking as if he’s permanently about to wet himself, which was always McCarthy’s prevailing contortion. Stoltz had gained notice in Fast Times at Ridgemont High five years earlier (even then he was twenty), and had since garnered plaudits for teen-Elephant Man pic Mask and career-defining negative publicity for being replaced by Fox on Back to the Future.
As compensation, the not-even-one-time Marty McFly finally gets to cop off with his mom, Lea Thompson, as the social climbing Miss Amanda Jones (The March Violets provide the Stones cover). Thompson was coming off a couple of stinkers (Space Camp and Howard the Duck, or Howard: A New Breed of Hero as the to-no-avail UK retitling would have you believe; she actually emerges unscathed from Lucas’ folly, one of the picture’s few bright spots). And, while the role allows for a few tonal shades – Amanda isn’t merely the shallow rich-bitch prize, but actually has feelings too – it yields none of the opportunities for meaty comic timing her Lorraine McFly did (seriously, as effortlessly great as Fox is in Back to the Future, and the unarguable reason it went stratospheric, the real joys performance-wise come from Thompson and Crispin Glover).
Keith: You always hurt the ones you love.
Watts: So when are beating the shit out of Amanda Jones?
And then there’s Mary Stuart Masterson (Watts), the only near-age-appropriate member of the cast (she was twenty). Hers is the Jon Cryer role, although it would be understandable if you did a double take that Keith could be ignoring the “sexy tomboy beanpole” – an award MSM would retain until Keira Knightley was crowned by the possibly-on-its-last-legs ain’t it cool news – under his nose.
The movie is, of course, a massive cheat. Pretty at least cast unconventional-looking actors as its ugly ducky-lings and swans; here, we have three impossibly good-looking types vying it out for attention (to be fair, Ringwald turned down Amanda, a probably wise move, given her subsequent typecasting, but Hughes never used her again, reportedly taking umbrage).
And Craig Sheffer (Hardy Jenns), who looks like an evil, supremely-punchable Matt Damon playing James Spader’s part from Pretty, complete with archetypal bad-80s fashion etiquette of rolled-up suit jacket sleeves; he really deserved to go down.
The picture’s stylised poverty, courtesy of Deutsch (who would go on to marry Thompson, the fiend), is never even momentarily convincing. John Ashton, as Keith’s blue-collar dad Cliff, aspirant for a son who has no desire to do so to be first in the family to go to college (“Co-ed physical education” Cliff mutters to himself, awestruck, leafing through a prospectus), gives it his best, but there’s never any mistaking this window dressing for substance (do you ever once buy that Keith is the type to mend cars?)
And yet, it’s a John Hughes movie! It’s forgivable! It’s part of the charm! Keith is supposed to be “the weirdest guy in high school”, which I think is giving him waaaaaaay too much credit – unless it’s a very dull school – as he’s about as oddball as algebra. The tag comes from his younger sister Laura, Maddie Corman, who runs off with most of the best comic lines – instructing her friends about how she’s instantly part of the in-crowd now Keith is with Amanda “or the whole social structure crumbles” – and has a standout moment when Cliff, having met with the school career advisor, raps on her classroom window and waves; she involuntarily screams and asks to see the nurse.
Hardy: You know what, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing in the world if you and me actually turned out to be friends.
Keith: Yes, it would.
These aren’t geeks. They smoke, hanging out at bars – “Who doesn’t have ID?”; there’s nary a hint of real, Anthony Michael Hall, not-fitting-in – they’re not even close. Which means the movie is even less identifiable to its typically troubled target group. Even Ferris Bueller had a Cameron Frye, so it’s a little difficult to chart their status at school, particularly since the beautiful people instantly tend to win there by default.
Deutch has to strain at signifiers of their difference. Others suggest Watts is a lesbian, mostly because she has short hair, and is aggressive, and, er, nurses an obsession with drumming; hilariously, she carries drum sticks everywhere she goes, just like Keith carries a paint brush, symbolic of their artistry, don’t you know. Her romantic reticence is, of course, because she only has eyes for Keith. When Dad’s response to Keith telling him he’s one of the guys who didn’t fit in is “I didn’t know about this”, ours is “No shit, we wouldn’t have guessed either”.
So, being as they don’t really have all that much to complain about – they aren’t horribly put upon, are fashionable in their own ’80s way, and did I say less-than-ugly? – it’s required that Sheffer’s Hardy must be relentlessly, unforgivably areshole-ish. It’s actually a fairly hilarious cartoon he’s asked to portray, and Sheffer duly rises to the despicable occasion (“The one thing I’m glad about… is that you get her used. She’s the trash, you’re just a fool”).
Keith: This place is my church.
It’s something of a testament to the central ménage-à-trois that the increasingly ludicrous third act has its feet on the ground at all, as Keith decides to stand up to the bully and what he perceives to be Amanda in on the plan to beat him up. Thus, he disposes of his college fund to take her on an expensive night out, with Watts at the wheel of a limo. Frankly, it isn’t surprising Cliff is askance at his son throwing his cash away, as it’s a pretty batty decision (you see, Laura was right, Keith actually is the weirdest kid at school).
Anything less than Stoltz’s guilelessness would make all this seem highly stalker-creepy, rather than adorable; he’s hung a portrait of her in an art gallery, for goodness sake (as with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the art gallery is Hughes’ shorthand for a teen of taste and discernment, although fortunately there’s no Smiths playing this time).
One might reasonably argue it’s a pretty dodgy set up all round, since while we aren’t quite in Vertigo territory, Keith’s fantasy projection of Amanda does indeed woo her; it’s only the memory of his tremendous, camera-spinning tonsil hockey with Watts that saves the day (a scene finding Watts at her most relentlessly masochistic, offering herself as a practice smooch for Keith’s big night; luckily for her, the gambit worked).
Keith: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Watts: Yeah, but you can tell how much it’s gonna cost.
Some Kind of Wonderful may not be able to compete with the wall-to-wall genius of Hughes’ previous screenplay (Bueller, anyone?) but there are enough cherishable nuggets of teen wisdom to be getting on with. Lines like, “Don’t go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs”, “It’s better to swallow pride than blood”, “Break his heart, I’ll break your face”, and the classic tormented angst of “The moment you stop thinking there’s someone out there for you, it’s over, right?” Or, if you prefer, “Go get your skag, and let’s roll”.
The picture concludes with a couple of cornball gems, as Amanda looks on the positive side of being dumped by her rich mates and dumped by Keith (“It’s gonna feel good to stand on my own”), and the latter gets nascently proprietorial about the jewellery he’s just furnished Watts with (“You look good wearing my future”).
Watts: Ray, this is 1987. Did you know a girl can be anything she wants to be?
Ray: I know, my mum’s a plumber… And I have an enormous amount of respect for her.
There are several other notables in the supporting cast deserving a mention. Molly Hagan as Amanda’s rich bitch not-really friend Shayne, who would fall victim to Kramer’s lure as Sister Roberta in Seinfeld episode The Conversion. Scott Coffey, who has an enormous amount of respect for his mother, had previously appeared in Ferris Bueller and would go on to become a regular David Lynch bit player. Candace Cameron Bure’s junior Nelson sibling Cindy would pave the way for the impossibly precocious brats who’d form a staple of Hughes fare over the next few years (mostly played by Macaulay Culkin). And then there’s Elias Koteas.
Duncan: I’m here to wipe the floor with your ass. And you know it, and everybody knows it, and you deserve it.
Yes, Koteas’ Duncan (curiously credited only as “Skinhead”) is perhaps the picture’s ultimate fantasy element, the thuggish pupil with a heart of gold. If no one else is remotely convincing as eighteen, Koteas takes this to a new level as he was already balding. In classic twist fashion – he’s like a punk Amanda Jones – we’re introduced to him as an ignorant, aggressive lug, but as soon as he incurs the attentions of a teacher we know there’s more to him.
Having been discovered with cigarettes and alcohol, he chortlesomely protests “These were a gift… from your wife”. When Keith lands in detention (doing so purposefully to be with Amanda, who has used her wiles to get out of said class, telling a bald teacher she likes what he has done with his hair), he and Duncan bond over art and girls; Keith shows him a portrait of Amanda, Duncan rips the top off his desk to evidence the engraving he’s been working on.
And most rousingly, Han Solo-style, he shows up just at the crucial moment when Keith is about to be beaten to a pulp and Amanda is going to have to beg to save him (“I don’t think that’s going to be necessary”). Koteas, who improvised much of his dialogue, as well as putting his head on Thompson’s shoulder at the end (her smile is genuine), has had an interesting career, ranging from Casey Jones in the (original) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a regular in Atom Egoyan features. However, this is the one I always go back to as a favourite, particularly his sign-off (of the party, he says he’s going to “stick around here and crank it up to a nice, respectable level”). I can only hope he and Stoltz didn’t improvise the jaw-dropping response to Amanda slapping Hardy, though: not good.
Of course, there’s also the question, did Keith make the right choice? Well, honestly, we don’t really get a chance to discern, and if it weren’t for Deutch giving us a less than sleek flashback to that kiss at a crucial moment, he probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser either. We aren’t privy to Amanda Jones private moments, so our perception of her is filtered through Keith’s interactions.
That, and her future husband is intent on servicing the more superficial elements of her character (the fantasy gym shot in socks and t-shirt). So obviously, it’s MSM. Fortunately, this wasn’t one of those, like Pretty in Pink or Four Weddings and a Funeral (or Green Card), where the protagonist made the patently wrong decision when settling on his partner. All three leads would have career bright spots over the next few years, Masterson in Benny and Joon and Thompson returning to Lorraine McFly, but only Stoltz would hit on anything approaching a consistent streak, collaborating with Tarantino, Roger Avery and Cameron Crowe.
I said earlier that the third act is only pulled off because of its leads’ dedication, but there’s also a sense that they’re too good for such froth – I mean that affectionately – and too mature to really to sell it as a teen drama. The result is that Some Kind of Wonderful occupies a strange dress-up space of play acting where no one is convincing anyone, but at the same time, you go with it because the trappings are so familiar and welcoming.
At the time, Hughes was coming off a string of hits, having successfully tapped into the teenage daydream/nightmare. Some Kind of Wonderful broke that trend, floundering at the box office. Hughes tellingly didn’t return to the well, which is just as well, as the following year the lighter-burned Heathers, with its jet-black humour, teen-angst bullshit and high-school murders (and would-be massacre) came along and forever changed the face of the genre. A retreat into the safe space of ten-year-olds inflicting ultra-violence on inept home invaders seemed like a wise move.