Get your yuk-yuks out. Today in the Journal, we look back at the four major films – all of them comedies – released the weekend of August 9-11, 1985. This includes PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, REAL GENIUS, SUMMER RENTAL and MY SCIENCE PROJECT.
SCOTT’S FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 60
MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1985) – Michael Harlan is a gearhead who is flunking science. His diploma is riding on his ability to wow his hippie teacher (Dennis Hopper) with a great science project. Rather than build one, he scavenges an abandoned military base for something he can pass off. What he finds is an alien artifact that sucks up enormous amounts of power and creates rifts in time and space.
This is yet another film which tries to inject Speilberg-type motifs into the summer of 1985. Like BACK TO THE FUTURE, it features outcast high schoolers coming across time portals. Unlike BACK TO THE FUTURE, it seems only half-realized. In the climax of the film, we see figures from the past and future, but they have no character and don’t seem to question whey they are suddenly in a 1985 high school. Instead, all of them just try to kill our protagonists, making them mere obstacles to cross. Stockwell (who would later become a very capable director) plays a guy more into cars than people, just like his friend in CHRISTINE. And he doesn’t do a bad job with what he’s given. But the characters are such poorly-written facsimiles of the most garish stereotypes. Therefore, he is joined by a sweet, smart girl (Danielle von Zerneck) and a nerd (Raphael Sbarge) who would have been kicked out of Lamda Lamda Lamda.
But most embarrassing of all is Fisher Stevens as Harlan’s best friend, Vinnie. He is the cool kid from Brooklyn who is around for comic relief. The amount of mugging this guy does overtakes everything else in the film. This criminally unfunny character seems as if he too popped in from another dimension, since he bears no resemblance to any human being you’ve ever seen before.
Too bad. There are a lot of elements that work in MY SCIENCE PROJECT. But the script needed to be reworked by different writers and a more skilled director needed to be calling the shots. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) – Pee-Wee Herman loves his bicycle more than anything in the entire world. When it’s stolen, he goes into an emotional tailspin. Eventually, he does whatever it takes to find his missing bike.
Certainly one of the more unusual films of 1985. People who dismiss this as merely childish need to take a closer look. Behind all the kid humor are some pretty risque and clever bits. This isn’t for children, it’s for people who never grew up.
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE was the first feature from Tim Burton and what a great match he is for the material. It’s hard to imagine anyone realized just what Burton would have come up with here. The film is a funhouse of wonder for the subversive. It’s also the first crack Danny Elfman had on a musical score, not including brother Richard Elfman’s wonderfully kooky FORBIDDEN ZONE. These two elements added a special flavor to PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and it’s hard to imagine the film working without them.
Of course, the film does work much more than future novelty films like Carrot Top’s CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD. It has charm, heart and not for nothing, is pretty darn funny too.
Oh, and here’s something I didn’t know. Elizabeth Dailey, who plays Dottie in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE has since gone on to an amazingly prolific career in voice acting. She has contributed the voices to a number of projects that probably mean a lot to you. For me, I found out she was Buttercup on THE POWERPUFF GIRLS and now I can’t separate the two characters. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
REAL GENIUS (1985) – At fifteen years old, Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is a scientific wunderkind. He is offered a full scholarship at a prestigious university. There, he works with Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), a slightly older person known for being the Einstein of his time. He’s also a class clown who subverts authority and refuse to take life seriously. Mitch and Chris are tasked with perfecting a special kind of laser for their professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton). The two have to figure out how to crack this puzzle and worse yet, whether they are responsible for what becomes of their invention.
So, a couple Hollywood people didn’t want to budge and hence this youth-oriented science comedy was released the same weekend as MY SCIENCE PROJECT? Smooth move, guys. Now, neither of you have a hit. Thankfully, REAL GENIUS has gained quite a few fans over the years. It deserves them.
Yes, REAL GENIUS contains a lot of the standard tropes of 1980s teen comedies. But it’s also pretty smart too. The set-ups are clever and the characters have heart. It would have been an easy route to just make these characters the standard nerds, but this film is classier than that. These are people who are funny and smart and have a conscience.
Instead of playing just another party animal jerk, Kilmer plays Chris as someone who has a very specific reason for acting the way he does. All of which doesn’t mean he squanders his gifts or discounts his relationships with other people. Atherton has played from pretty legendary scumbags in films like GHOSTBUSTERS and DIE HARD, but this might be my favorite Atherton scumbag. Again, it’s in the writing.
REAL GENIUS is sort of a joy. A very enjoyable teen comedy that makes you laugh and leaves you with a smile on your face. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
SUMMER RENTAL (1985) – John Candy plays an air traffic controller who is constantly under stress. He is ordered to take a mandatory vacation, so he packs up the kids and heads to a summer rental house. While having a miserable time trying to enjoy himself, he locks horns with the arrogant Capt. Al Pellet (Richard Crenna). As a family bonding exercise, he and his family try to win the annual regatta, which Pellet has won several years in a row.
Ah, domestic comedies. People with families and the shenanigans they get into. It’s something millions of everyday people can relate to. I’m not one of these people and honestly I don’t really care about this kind of stuff.
This is probably the main reason why I didn’t find SUMMER RENTAL funny, but boring. It is the most mundane of 1980s comedies. If someone threw in some teenagers trying to get laid, it would have had all the elements of the generic comedies of the era.
This was built as a John Candy vehicle. After making a name of SCTV, it wasn’t until SPLASH! That he conquered the big screen. There had been an early starring role for Candy in 1983’s GOING BERZERK but no one really remembered that one. Candy is perfectly charming as the family man here. But the material just isn’t up to snuff. The best part of the film is Rip Torn, who plays a mentor of sorts to the family as they gear up for the regatta.
Carl Reiner directed this one. But this is so much more sedate than the work he did with Steve Martin. It feels like a low-rent version of VACATION. ★½ (out of ★★★★)
BOX OFFICE CHAMPS – AUGUST 9-11, 1985
1. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1,530 screens) $8.1 million ($95.7 million – 6 weeks)
2. SUMMER RENTAL (1,584 screens) $5.8 million (1st week)
3. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (829 screens) $4.5 million (1st week)
4. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION (1,547 screens) $4.3 million ($35.7 million – 3 weeks)
5. FRIGHT NIGHT (1,545 screens) $4.3 million ($13.3 million – 2 weeks)
6. WEIRD SCIENCE (1,172 screens) $3 million ($11.1 million – 2 weeks)
7. REAL GENIUS (990 screens) $2.6 million (1st week)
8. COCOON (873 screens) $2.1 million ($60.2 million – 8 weeks)
9. SESAME STREET PRESENTS: FOLLOW THAT BIRD (1,102 screens) $1.84 million ($6.7 million – 2 weeks)
10. SILVERADO (903 screens) $1.81 million ($22.1 million – 5 weeks)
14. MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1,003 screens) $1.5 million (1st week)
source: Box Office Mojo
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 272
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