A friend of mine once said that depending on your age, your defining 80’s movie could be either Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. For me it was not the Breakfast Club. I like the movie but felt it pandered to me, while Sixteen Candles feels more like a nostalgic look back at the teen years by Hughes, updating it for the ’80s. It has a similar feel to his excellent script for National Lampoon’s Vacation, and gets him before he began to wallow in sentimentality. Plus hey, boobs and Long Duk Dong. Hard to beat that combo.
The story is simple; Molly Ringwald, the full-lipped leggy redhead who made my mom buy so much Kleenex in 1984, plays Samantha on the day of her sixteenth birthday. The problem is that everyone has forgotten. Her older sister is getting married that weekend, so sweet little sixteen is swept aside. Samantha has other, typical high school problems- the high school hunk she has a crush on seems to think she’s invisible, and her budding breasts have failed to flower more than a mere 16th of an inch- “or half an inch, if I take a deep breath.” How do you make a teen romantic comedy appeal to boys? By making boobs a major plot point.
Hughes also infuses the film with his trademark humor, which pendulum-swings between somewhat cruel and endearingly sentimental. Samantha is also stalked by “the Geek”- Anthony Michael Hall- and his fellow nerds, including Bryce (John Cusack) and some guys who wear headphones with LEDs and carry home-made ray guns. The Geek is a horndog with an ’80s pompadour, and Hall plays him with a perfect mix of overconfidence and social ineptitude. And Molly’s Samantha is equally sympathetic, engrossed with her insurmountable teenage problems, without getting too annoying about it. Her crush Jake (Michael Schoeffling, Vision Quest), seems a nice enough guy. He’s going out with the school knockout Caroline, but Sam seems more obsessed with the girl’s bod than he does.
“She must have flunked 9 grades!” Amusingly enough, the actress (Haviland Morris, The Baxter) was 25 when it was filmed. She’ll be at the school dance that night, and Sam just knows she’ll never work up the courage to talk to Jake with Tits McGee there. With all this to contend with, when she gets home her room has been commandeered by her grandparents, visiting for her sister’s wedding “to some oily bohunk.” Her grandma is delighted that Sam has “gotten her boobies” but that is cold comfort to Sam, who feels about as flat as Kansas in the face of Mount Caroline.
Hughes keeps the scenes busy with amusing, stereotypical characters. The cackling sleazy grandpa with his corny jokes; the cruel little brother, and famously, the Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong. He’s what everyone remembers from this movie, and he definitely steals every scene he’s in. Gedde Watanabe (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) makes the Donger a likeable goof and avoids an embarrassing stereotype by playing a party animal instead of an inscrutable nerd. At the party, he’s got a date in minutes, to further crush Sam’s hopes. At the dance, as expected she’s too terrified to talk to Jake, and gets chased off the dance floor by the Geek.
One of the movie’s best scenes is when he follows her, and they have a brief heart-to-heart in the auto shop, after he tries another fumbling attempt at seduction. This was a precursor to The Breakfast Club, where the burnout, jock, freak and lonely girl were all forced to talk to each other; it works better in a 5 minute scene, because we know the Geek and Samantha will never really be friends. But they can help each other; he tells her that Jake does notice her, and is actually interested; and she lends him her panties so he can fulfill a bet.
That’s part of Hughes’s charm; I’m not sure I would have paid to see a girl’s panties as a Freshman in high school, and I was a freakazoid nerdasaurus. Smell them, maybe. But anyway, the Geek and his crew are funny without being cruelly mocked, and even get some of the better jokes. At the party after the dance, where the house must be destroyed- this being a teen romp- the nerds, jocks and everyone inbetween collide. Jake and Caroline have a drunken break-up, and he sends her home in his parents’ Rolls Royce with the Geek at the wheel. He tries to find Samantha, but alas, it is not to be. All Jake gets is the Donger leaping out of a tree and grabbing his nuts.
The Geek does what any self-respecting nerd in a Corniche droptop with a drunken blonde in tow would- he drives her to his friend’s house to get photographic proof of the moment. He lures them outside by saying he has a great surprise, but being nerds, they assume it’s aliens.
This always bothered me. The next day we’re led to believe that the Geek and the hottie got it on, but we never see him get drunk so why would he forget? Maybe he doesn’t know how babies are made. In Weird Science he wears a bra on his head, so you can’t assume he knows these things. In the end all is well and of course our two lovebirds get together after a wacky wedding. I think this was the last time John Hughes let a girl ride off with a guy in a Porsche without making some sort of class commentary, as in Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful. Thankfully here he concentrates on the comedy, and the story lives in a sort of fantastic nostalgic land with a dash of ’50s and ’80s, and still garners mass appeal. This is one of the best comedies of the ’80s, and one of the best teen movies. Where Porky’s comes from a guy’s perspective, Sixteen Candles comes from a girl’s, and yet manages to be funny for guys too. Just for that it deserves extra credit.
It was John Hughes’s first time as director, and he makes some amateur indulgences- he loves using ’50s TV music cues, such as “Dragnet” and the Peter Gunn theme; they grate a bit now, and were unnecessary. The rest of the soundtrack meanders from ’50s to ’80s, and still holds up. But most importantly, he loves his characters and makes us like them too, whether they’re a shitty little brother, or a mom who forgets your birthday. The jocks are given the same treatment as the geeks, and we don’t get a cliche Asshole Character to create tension or drama. Caroline could have been made into a snotty bitch who cuts down Samantha, but it’s not needed, and the movie is better for its absence. If all you remember is “No more yankee my wankee! The Donger needs food!” give it another watch, it’s a charming teen comedy that definitely inspired our newer batch of classics like Superbad.
Beers Required to Enjoy: None, but why not?
Could it be remade today? They shouldn’t try, but probably will
Quotability Rating: High
Cheese Factor: Baby bon–bel
High Points: The Donger, Molly & the Geek chat… so many.
Low Point: none
Gratuitous Boobies: Caroline’s shower scene