Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 8 – Pretty In Pink (1986)

Most of the movies I’m watching for this “Skeptic Vs. Gen X” series are movies that were targeted as Generation X kids who would have been about eight to twelve at the time of the films’ release, but I’ve made this one exception because no collection of over-rated stuff from the 80s would truly be complete without a little John Hughes.  Now, I don’t hate John Hughes exactly but I’ve always been on the outside looking in on the cult that seems to surround him.  There’s a whole generation of teenager that seems to view him as their bard and they will go on and on about how “universal” his films are and how much “everyone” relates to them.  Most of Hughes’ movies could be said to be “good” but they’re not as innovative as people make them out to be.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a fun romp for the most part and The Breakfast Club is a decent enough exercise even if it is, as Pauline Kael put it, a movie “about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.”  Sixteen Candles, on the other hand, has held up very poorly and I’ve never got much out of Weird Science either.  If people kept these movies in perspective instead of trying to sell them as “classics” or get them places in the Criterion Collection I wouldn’t have much beef with them but I think they’re widely oversold.  That brings me to the film at hand, which is the most famous film bearing the John Hughes name that I’ve yet to see: Pretty in Pink.

Now, Pretty in Pink was written but not actually directed by John Hughes, which is a technicality that smartasses will be eager to tell you, often in the same breath where they’ll try to blow your mind by telling you that Jason didn’t actually show up in the Friday the 13th series until Part II.  The actual director here is a guy named Howard Deutch who appears to be quite the hack.  Deutch’s first three movies were adaptations of John Hughes screenplays and it’s mostly been downhill for him since then.  His biggest credits since 1992 were Grumpier Old Men (not the original, the quickie sequel) and The Whole Ten Yards (again, not the original, the quickie sequel).  But Deutch really isn’t a problem here, in fact the film’s direction is basically indistinguishable from that of a real John Hughes movie to the point where I think it’s fair to view Hughes as the real auteur behind this thing.  The film has less of a high concept than Hughes’ most famous films and is probably most comparable to Sixteen Candles, which also starred Molly Ringwald as an awkward and disaffected teen girl and the film also features John Cryer in a role that was almost certainly meant for Anthony Michael Hall (who apparently turned it down in an attempt to avoid typecasting).

One of the things that has always kind of galled me about the notion of John Hughes movies being “universal” is that they’re really only “universal” if you grew up in the suburbs.  He was considered bold for making movies about people who were sort of on the outside of the in-crowd, but there was really nothing all that novel about that approach: teen movies from time immemorial have been about the underdogs and I think one of the reasons Ferris Beuler’s Day Off stands out as much as it did was because damn near the only one of these movies that actually was about the popular kid.  The star of Pretty in Pink is mostly considered the underdog because he looks a bit homely but also because she isn’t one of “the rich kids.”  Now that right there is a good example of John Hughes movies being less universal than they claim to be: what kind of public school has both exceedingly wealthy students and students who appear to be one rung above living in a trailer?  Maybe that happens more in the suburbs but the students at the public school I went to ranged from being “ghetto” to being just barely middle class, and those “barely middle class” students were not necessarily the cool kids who ran the place and certainly weren’t going around bragging about their relative wealth.  Maybe this was a special situation where Ringwald had a scholarship to some special Academy, but still, this dynamic does not seem natural to me.

The basic story of Pretty in Pink is simple to the point of almost being boring.  It’s basically the Cinderella story: the downtrodden maiden catches the eye of a prince, they get separated, then come back together at the end.  There’s not a lot to it outside of the trappings, and the “John Hughes” trappings were starting to feel kind of familiar by 1986 as well.  I normally think of John Hughes as having owned the teen genre throughout the 80s but looking at his output now I’m realizing that his “golden period” was basically confined to three years.  He made his first teen movie (Sixteen Candles) in 1984, put out The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985, then put out Ferris Bueler’s Day Off in 1986 and outsourced Pretty in Pink the same year before basically moving on to other things for the rest of his career and never looked back.  He spent all of the 90s writing and producing but never directing lame movies for little kids like Home Alone and Beethoven and was basically M.I.A. during the 2000s before tragically dying of a heart attack in 2009.  I’m not sure why he more or less gave up on the genre he’s most known for, maybe he just assumed he wasn’t going to be able to connect with the same generation of teenagers or maybe he just got addicted to those sweet Home Alone checks, but maybe he was right to cash in his chips when he did because I think his brand of teen movie were on the track to start getting a bit stale if he kept going.

To the Scorecard:

This is an interesting one to score because I don’t think this is really a “bad” movie so much as I think it’s an exceedingly average one.  But scoring for this series isn’t just about whether something is “good” or “bad,” it’s about whether or not the nostalgia surrounding a movie is justified.  For instance, I thought the movie Labyrinth was not very good but I gave it a win because I got why people thought it was fun and remembered it fondly.  Pretty in Pink, by contrast, isn’t bad but it feels like a million other movies and just didn’t seem overly memorable to me.

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