Review: Heathers (1989)

Director: Michael Lehmann

****

Think high school rich bitch, think Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, or Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, right? Wrong! As cruel as some of the characters in those films could be, even their most barbed comments never drew blood. Therein lies the difference between these films and Heathers, Michael Lehmann’s biting portrayal of high-school cliques and geeks. It’s got all the bitchiness, teenage alienation and other high-school clichés, but in their most extreme form and taken to their most extreme conclusions.

Watching Heathers, the greatest mystery has to be: what is a nice girl like Veronica (Winona Ryder) doing with the ‘Heathers’ clique. All named Heather, all sporting shoulder-padded jackets and taking snideness to new heights, they are just incomparably horrible, the kind of spawn you’d imagine Gordon Gekko producing. So why is Veronica wasting her time with them? She’s either conducting a social experiment or a sadist. Either way, her different nature is inescapable; she cares about issues. She feels empathy. She actually gets along with her parents! She also likes the attractive rebel (Christian Slater, stretching his Jack Nicholson shtick to breaking point). Indeed, when she starts dating him, she realizes the redundancy of hanging out with the ‘Heathers’, and Slater’s JD recommends a more drastic approach to influencing the social order at Westerburg High. Murder? How very!

A lesson in the dangers of superficiality is one thing (and a pretty clichéd thing at this stage) but seriously, how screwed up are these kids?! All the adults in this film are either blissfully oblivious, utterly out of touch with their children/students or are completely goofy. JD and his father (Kirk Scott) interact as if they have reversed the father-son roles and are each other. JD also seems to be in possession (or within easy reach) of handguns and explosives, and knows how best to kill the lead ‘Heather’, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). As already highlighted, it’s all the school clichés at their most extreme: why humiliate the school princess when you can kill her? Why emasculate the jock when you can kill him and make it look like a suicide over his closet homosexuality? And so forth. Veronica seems to take it all in her stride, though her diary belies her doubts (“My teenage angst bullshit now has a body count.”). We’re with her every step of her confused way, and  Ryder makes for a very likable guide through this messed-up world.

That said, it’d take a Sarah Palin-sized prude to fail to see the humour in all of this. Exaggeration is the key; the trussed-up sexiness of the ‘Heathers’, the none-more-‘80s interiors and costumes, the insanity of it all. The world of Heathers deserves our scorn; it practically demands it! When a father proclaims his love for his deceased homosexual offspring at his funeral, you know that drama has left the building, taking all good sense with it. The wit is biting, the wounds are deep, and justice belongs to the downtrodden geek.

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Review: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Director: Steve Kloves

****

There is one scene that everyone remembers in The Fabulous Baker Boys. In it, Jeff Bridges is the smoothie tinkling the ivories while Michelle Pfeiffer is standing atop the piano in a red evening dress slit to the thigh, performing an incredibly sensual version of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. She slinks about the grand piano lid whilst practically fellating the microphone she’s holding; Pfeiffer still looks fantastic, but this role has her at her most enticing, and it remains one of her best performances.

Does the rest of writer/director Steve Kloves’ film hold up? The story’s a little wobbly, if only because it’s been done before and since. Jack and Frank Baker (Jeff and Beau Bridges) are a cabaret act, but their act is dated and they look for a female vocal to spice it up. In slinks Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer), all pout and legs, to shake up their act. Unfortunately, Jack falls for her and the mingling of his personal and professional lives threatens the group. Big suprise(!) Still, for all the familiarity of Kloves’ plotting, The Fabulous Baker Boys remains an intensely likeable film. For starters, the three lead performances are all excellent. Pfeiffer plays Susie like she always maintaining a pretense, with only subtle hints at pain within. The Brothers Bridges have a nice dynamic, alternating between gentle ribbing and some genuine antagonism; I can’t help but feel that they brought quite a bit of their off-screen relationship to these roles. In any case, Jeff is as cool as ever and Beau makes for a believable ‘control-freak’ older brother.

The Fabulous Baker Boys boasts a classy, warm look that belies the slight cheesiness of the brothers’ cabaret act. Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s DP Michael Balhaus shoots the film with a slight warming glow; it looks comfortable and reassuring, drawing the viewer into its world. Once you’re there, Dave Grusin’s piano casts a wonderful spell to ensure that you end this film with a grin. It’s a friendly little flick that takes old rope and polishes it to a brilliant shine. It’s simply fabulous.