80s Trash of the Week: One Crazy Summer

“Savage” Steve Holland only blessed us with a few ’80s movies before he moved on to children’s animation, with shows such as “Eek! the Cat.” (That cartoon gave us the catchphrase “I learned something today!” which “South Park” has taken and ridden off with.) But he did give us the undeniable classic Better Off Dead… and the slightly lesser, but still funny One Crazy Summer, both with John Cusack. And for that we are deeply in his debt, because they were ’80s spoofs that were made in the ’80s, and yet great ’80s movies in their own right.

“I’m thinking of becoming a hit man.”

That’s right, “Savage” Steve Holland was meta before people said meta. In One Crazy Summer, Cusack plays “Hoops” McCann, a young aspiring animator with a name from a Steely Dan song. He graduates from Generic New York High School and follows his buddy George Calamari (Joel Murray, Hatchet, “Mad Men“) to the tourist town where his wacky family has a summer home. The town is your typical Martha’s Vineyard situation, with old money families with snotty kids using it as their playground- represented by Mark “Neidermeyer” Metcalf as Mr. Beckersted, an evil developer so cruel that he listens to lobsters scream with a stethoscope when he boils them. His douchey son Ted (played memorably by Matt Mulhern, Lt. Gene from “Major Dad”) fills the goon role, deciding to bully Hoops mercilessly when his girlfriend dares notice him.

Booger isn’t cut out for the Marines

The working folk like “Ack Ack” Raymond, whose Dad runs Army Surplus store, are his victims. Ack Ack is played by Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds, and more recently the manager who wrote “Mess Around” for Ray Charles in Ray. He’s also Cusack’s fellow alumn from Better Off Dead, along with the hippie mailman (Taylor Negron- the pizza guy from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) who’s back for another minor role. Hoops and George run into a musician named Cassandra on their road trip there- she’s on the run from a biker gang she owes money, led by John “Sloth” Matusczak (The Goonies) and they help her escape by jumping their jalopy onto the last ferry to the island. Cassandra is played by a perky Demi Moore, fresh from St. Elmo’s Fire.

Sloth unmasked. With fish in his spiky hair.

On the island, they meet the rest of their ragtag band of ’80s misfits, including Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Villard as the Stork Brothers. The plot is simple and silly; we get various goofy skits interspersed with animated interludes, as Hoops doodles his Unlovable Rhino character, who is forever tormented by the Fluffy Bunnies. Ted the goon hassles Hoops ‘n company, and his evil Dad wants to knock down the Dew Drop Inn, where Cassandra sings nightly, to build condos. Ted and Hoops decide to settle their differences with a competition. This time it’s a boat regatta.

Bunnies had it comin’

The joy in this movie is in the backgrounds. George’s little sister “Squid” has an injured dog named Boscoe, and she wreaks terrible vengeance on whoever makes fun of him. Neidermeyer looks like a John Waters villain as he tortures lobsters, and lounges around the pool plotting nefarious mayhem. Ack Ack’s Soldier of Fortune wanna-be Dad sends him to an artillery range to pick up shell casings, during live fire exercises. And he trains a legion of little Civil Defense wardens who tackle and bandage anyone who so much as trips at the beach. And poor Joel Murray, that squiggly-lipped least famous of the Murray brothers, gets buried in the sand where a heaving human hog sits his beach chair above his head, eating beans and chili dogs. Oh, the humanity.

This does not bode well.

There’s one silly set piece after another, such as Bobcat in a Godzilla suit, and various pranks played back and forth. It’s not as tasteless as stuff like Joy Sticks, but not as masterful as a classic like Say Anything, or even Porky’s. Actually it’s sort of like Say Anything meets Porky’s. Holland’s movies were great because they knew how stupid their genre was and made fun of it, while still existing within it and not going full spoof like a Mel Brooks film. They have great charm, and it’s too bad he’s done little writing since. Though apparently he will be writing Howard Stern’s idiotic remake of Porky’s, so maybe he can give it the charm it will desperately need.

Pop that collar, brah.

Even the bad guys have charm; little scenes like Ted whispering “don’t touch my car” when he almost runs Hoops over, and then slowly boiling into a rage is unforgettable. And his comeuppance is legendary, only bested by that of his father. Will they win the regatta? Do I really have to answer that? Even the movie knows they have to win, and that Hoops has to see that Cassandra’s quirky charms outweigh the hot girl’s rack. Not that Demi’s rack has any ‘splaining to do; just rent Blame it on Rio to get a fine gander.

Brat pack slummer sings

But what really sets a “Savage” Steve Holland movie apart is the animation. In Better Off Dead he had a claymation hamburger singing and dancing to Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some,” and here he goes even further, by having Hoops animate the Lonely Rhino’s adventures to his monologues. We get to see him take out the Happy Fluffy Bunnies with an Israeli submachinegun, and Teddy as Godzilla stomp him into something “resembling a wet prune.” According to IMDb, he even made two bunnies the likeness of Siskel & Ebert, since they panned Better Off Dead. What were they thinking? They were too busy sucking fellow Chicagoan John Hughes’s saccharine nutsack. I like Hughes, but he made some crap too. And I’d rather sit through or One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead.

How evil do you get? Mmm, pass the butter.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? not ironic enough!
Quotability Rating: low
Cheese Factor: sharp
High Points: too many to count
Low Point: Demi Moore sings?
Gratuitous Boobies: none; rent Blame it on Rio instead

The Grifters

Everyone likes a good con, but like everything else in Hollywood, the con man is glamorized. Take The Sting for example; they’re nice folks, and they’re scamming a violent mob boss. In Matchstick Men, anxiety-ridden Nicholas Cage is teaching a young girl the ropes, only to get schooled himself. Even George C. Scott as The Flim-Flam Man is likeable in his irascible way. David Mamet’s con game movies are a bit more true to life, with House of Games being the paragon and The Spanish Prisoner being an enjoyable diversion. But if you want the dark gritty world of the con, to see what sociopaths they really are, you’ve got to watch Stephen Frears’s The Grifters.

Three excellent actors circle each other like a trio of sharks looking for weakness: John Cusack as the kid over his head; Anjelica Huston as his mother, a mob moll who knows the score; and Annette Bening, a vamp and veteran of the long con who lost her has partner and is hungry for more. Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, author of such pulp classics as Pop. 1280, The Getaway and After Dark, My Sweet, the story is down and dirty, pulls no punches, and harbors no pretensions about what kind of people they are.

Roy is purely small time, but the women in his life are ruthless professionals. His estranged mother Lilly works for a big mobster, evening out the odds at the track. She handles a lot of cash, and is skimming for her retirement fund. It’s expected; you can’t trust someone who doesn’t steal. Myra is between sugar daddies; her last one went off his rocker, and she needs a man to do the long con with. She sleeps with the mark, and leads him into the classic investment scam. We get to see it in flashback, so we do get a dose of The Sting with our dark noir tale. We meet Roy doing parlor-trick scams in a race track bar, switching a $20 for a $10 when he buys a drink; the bartender doesn’t fall for it, and punches him so hard in the gut he winds up in the hospital.

Pat Hingle’s most memorable role.

Lilly has been trying to steer him away from the life, and he resents it; he refuses to call her ‘mother,’ and treats her like shit. Through flashback we see how he left home and got mentored by your typical white suit gambling con man, a short con guy, and he thinks he’s ready for the life. But he’s soft. Myra on the other hand, knows how to play smarter men than Roy, and smells money once Lilly comes around. The two women circle him like a pair of jungle cats sizing each other up; they know each other’s motives, but they also know Roy won’t admit that mother knows best.

It all goes pear-shaped once Roy’s injured; Lilly misses her bets at the track that day to drag him to the hospital and save his life. Nothing stings more than a thankless child, and when he still sides with Myra, the story moves into higher gear. We get to see what a vamp Myra is, played with psychopathic delight by Bening, when she needs to cover the rent on her townhouse. The landlord is a fat, sweaty guy who knows she’s going to manipulate him into letting it go; we know immediately that she’s traded sex for favors with him before, and even after his stern denials, she gets her way again. And she’s so cynical about it, that she’s laughing while he’s pumping away, because she remembers the daily special at the cafe this morning: “Royal hothouse tomato, topped with a generous slice of ripe cheese!”

And she is quite the hot tomato; she’s naked more often than not in this film, and Frears manages to make every shot of her lithe body framed as the weapon it is. As much as I found the mid-90s date-rape defense of “women using sex as a weapon” ludicrous, a vamp like Myra is what the phrase was made for. Cut of the same cloth as Linda Fiorentino’s iconic portrayal in The Last Seduction, and Kathleen Turner’s career-building character in Body Heat, Bening plays it as her own; instead of a husky-voiced femme fatale, she’s a giggling, slinking minx and slides through every scene know exactly what she wants and how to get it.

Lilly gets taken to task for mucking her job up that day to save Roy; her big boss Bobo Justus, played with oily menace to perfection by Pat Hingle, shows up to wonder where the bet money went, since it surely wasn’t put on bets that day. We see Lilly nervously digging through trash cans at the track for other people’s receipts, knowing this day will come. When Bobo shows up in his Cadillac, we get one of the most memorable scenes of the film- where we see the short con roots that both he and Lilly came out of, and how someone like Bobo Justus keeps his grifters in line. Unfortunately the scene is not embeddable on youtube, but you can watch it by clicking here.

She won’t drink O.J. for a good while.

Marty Scorsese narrates the opening to the picture, and while Frears is quite talented in his own right- Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Queen– he’s not the auteur that Scorsese is. The movie is set in present day 1990, but still has the old-timey feel of a ’40s noir, in their manner of dress and how they handle themselves; it gives the film a distinctive look, but also makes it feel like a pastiche, and less realistic. The excellent dialogue and script by Donald Westlake is enough to recall the sharp repartee of classic noir, and the cinematography alongside it. Frears makes sure to update Myra’s scam for the information age, but in a way that shields it from anachronisms. Even today, not all the life-ruining cons come from a Nigerian email address; usually buried in the back of the newspaper, you still read of people being swindled of their nest eggs by the lure of a “sure thing,” and the bunco squad at the local precinct is just as busy as ever.

The end of the novel and the end of the book are at odds. As Myra and Lilly try to take each other down, Roy is making the one smart decision in his life- to leave the life. But it’s too late. Myra wants the cash Lilly’s been skimming, and when she strikes, Roy is caught in the crossfire when Mom hits back. In the movie, there is deep guilt, and Lilly has to deal with what she did to survive. In the book, it is an act of pure vengeance, a ruthless predator dispatching her weak offspring. The movie is more powerful, but lacks the complete amorality that infused Jim Thompson’s novel. Like the original ending to Double Indemnity, I guess the audience couldn’t take it. Bunch of sentimental marks. As it stands, The Grifters is still one of the best and darkest movies about confidence men, and any fan of film noir should add it to their list of must-sees.