Forbidden Case File #165: Lambada

Forbidden Case File #165: Lambada

Snakes On A Plane is a unique case in the long history of pop-culture fads. It began, as fads often do, with a small but fervent cult catapulting a kitschy spectacle from the underground to the mainstream. At first, the buzz around Snakes On A Plane was purely viral, the product of smart, web-savvy, crazed fans with too much time on their hands elevating a frothy popcorn movie with an irresistibly cheesy title and premise to pop-culture prominence through their vocal, indefatigable optimism. Then New Line, the studio behind Snakes On A Plane, picked up on the wave of ironic excitement about the action-horror-comedy, and decided to capitalize on it. New Line wanted everyone to know that it, its shareholders, and its parent company were in on the joke. In fact, they were in on the joke before you ever even heard of Snakes On A Plane, you fucking poser. The film was posited as an instant cult classic. How were fans supposed to enjoy a laugh at the film’s expense when the film was so busy laughing at itself?

Convinced it had a sleeper smash on its hands, New Line ordered reshoots to satisfy the film’s growing army of acolytes, most notably a sequence where star Samuel L. Jackson hollers the film’s instant catchphrase, “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” The process seemed terribly backward. Instead of camp aficionados reviving and re-contextualizing a forgotten or derided piece of pop-culture ephemera, a studio was deliberately crafting a film to fit the needs of a built-in audience that decided it loved Snakes On A Plane before watching a single frame.

As Snakes On A Plane’s release date neared and the hype rose to oppressive levels, the film’s Cannon-style charm began to dissipate. The media and studio hype machine transformed a real, albeit goofy and superficial, phenomenon—a group of bad-movie geeks collectively elevating a glorified B-movie into a pop-culture phenomenon—into something fake and strained. A studio clumsily co-opted the Internet and the ever-expanding culture of geekdom in an attempt to turn a B-movie into a blockbuster. Snakes On A Plane was once an inside joke, but New Line wanted it to be an inside joke the whole world shared, which defeats the purpose of inside jokes. 

Snakes On A Plane risked looking like a fake fad, and audiences became increasingly weary, with good reason. People are understandably contemptuous of fake fads. Fads are ridiculous and insulting enough to begin with. But when a corporation or studio tries to convince people that everyone is going crazy about, say, pogs, when in fact absolutely no one is going crazy about pogs, people have an innate tendency to rebel. They resent being sold a bill of goods.

Today’s entry in My Year Of Flops chronicles the preeminent fake fad of the past 30 years: the lambada. In the late ’80s, Americans were inundated with the news that a dance craze known as the lambada had swept Central and South America and was destined to conquer the United States. Ah, but this was no regular dance, mind you. This was not your father’s Charleston or jitterbug. No, this was a forbidden dance that was wantonly, nakedly sexual. The lambada ratcheted up the inherent sensuality of dancing to extreme, even comic levels. The lambada was just a short step away from actual fucking, we were told. It was dirty dancing on ecstasy. Finally, uptight Americans had permission to dry-hump on the dance floor without shame or self-consciousness. 

Our pals over at Cannon, the geniuses behind such Case Files as The Apple, Over The Top, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace looked at news reports about teenagers grinding away at each other in a debauched public spectacle, and heard the siren song of cash registers happily ringing. The beloved Israeli schlock-merchant outfit never encountered a fad (or would-be fad) it didn’t immediately attempt to exploit, from disco (The Apple) to breakdancing (Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) to rap (Rappin’). 

So the geniuses over at Cannon decided to race a film into production in order to capitalize on this red-hot fad sweeping the nation. Alas, the lambada was not, in fact, red-hot, a fad, or sweeping the nation. It felt more like a media construct than a genuine grassroots phenomenon. People didn’t race to the nearest discothèque to experience the lambada for themselves so much as they snorted derisively at the notion that they’d all soon be simulating wildly acrobatic sex on the dance floor.

Ah, but Cannon couldn’t have known that when it green-lit 1990’s Lambada. It’s a film with a distinct identity crisis. It’s an earnest message movie about the need for math-tutoring in the barrio. No, it’s a sensual celebration of dance at its sweatiest and most uninhibited! Wait… it’s both!

Dreamy J. Eddie Peck and his thick, lustrous mane of hair lifelessly embody these comic contradictions. Peck plays the film’s lead character, an uptight Beverly Hills math teacher with a secret. Before turning his life around, he was part of a Mexican street gang. Oh, and at night, he covers his rippling muscles with a black leather jacket, abandons his loving/longsuffering family, and rides his motorcycle to an underground club in what appears to be an empty airplane hangar in the poor part of town.

After dark, Peck undergoes a Clark Kent-like transformation from bifocals-sporting math geek to contacts-wearing biker super-stud. But Peck doesn’t grind his sweaty, erect member against a series of scantily clad skanks for his own enjoyment, or, God forbid, for sexual pleasure. No, Peck dances the lambada at the club solely as a way of inducing a bunch of scruffy juvenile delinquents into heading into a back room with him so he can teach them the math skills needed to pass the G.E.D. It’s a classic bait-and-switch. You come to an underground club seeking cheap sexual thrills and lascivious dancing; you stay to learn more about calculus.

Melora Hardin co-stars as a bored Beverly Hills brat who spends much of the film eye-fucking Peck, her math teacher and sexual ideal. Hardin went on to play Steve Carell’s boss-turned-lover on The Office, so I like to think of Lambada as Jan Levinson: The Early Years. Hardin spends the film in a libidinal frenzy. She’s hot for teacher even when dorky glasses and a sweater vest cunningly conceal Peck’s hunkiness. So you can only imagine how exhilarated she is to learn that her stern math teacher is also a Dionysian dance-floor deity. A wholesome, wholesome Dionysian dance-floor deity. In this clip, Peck’s disparate worlds collide when Hardin hits on him with a lascivious line about how math class is inevitably followed by biology, and if he plays his cards right, anatomy. 

Lambada gives Peck an impossible role to play. He’s a loving dad and committed husband who abandons his family every night to grind against oversexed harlots in the barrio. He’s ostensibly an exemplar of raw, muy caliente sexuality who’s nevertheless as paternal and non-threatening as Mr. Rogers. He gets his rocks off bumping and grinding on the dance floor with teenagers, and also by teaching poor children about differential equations. And he anchors perhaps the only film in the world equally full of math lessons and dance-floor dry-humping.

Even when he’s dancing lasciviously, Peck is a curiously asexual figure. He’s infinitely more convincing as a do-gooder and math geek than as a shadowy, motorcycle-riding man of mystery. And, thanks in no small part to his annoyingly clean-cut performance, Lambada is a sexy film about the world’s sexiest dance—a dance so sexy that it’s forbidden—that’s defiantly, almost perversely unsexy. (Though Hardin looks damn good in a push-up bra.) 

Breakdancing legend Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones—who also choreographed the film—plays Peck’s dance-club rival. Quinones’ misunderstood heavy is filled with rage, perhaps because the actor playing him is 35, yet inexplicably cast as a troubled high-school student, a switchblade-toting punk. There’s no way Peck will ever reach him. Or is there? In this scene, Peck illustrates how the principles of geometry—specifically, the rectangular coordinate system—can help Quinones improve as a pool player. It’s an even clumsier variation on those scenes in inspirational-teacher movies where a well-meaning liberal gets students interested in literature by illustrating that Shakespeare was the “original rapper,” and that his sonnets contain rhymes so jiggy, they’d even impress 50 Cent.

Clearly that’s the only practical use of mathematical or scientific knowledge, right? Wrong! In this scene, a poindexter known only as “Egghead” shows off a computer program that inevitably leads to an elaborately choreographed production number all about how math and science and computers can be fun! 

Ah, but back to the plot. When the snooty busybodies who run Peck’s school discover he’s been educating a bunch of poor minorities, he loses his job. Peck’s protégés from el barrio are outraged, so they head out to Beverly Hills en masse and challenge Peck’s snooty rich-kid ex-students to a climactic math-off. Yes, “climactic math-off,” words that do not go together under any circumstances. The stakes are high: If the ghetto kids win the big math competition, Peck gets his job back, and everyone works out their differences in a film-closing dance number. If the snooty rich kids win… I guess Peck has to remain fired. Ah, but the poor kids have a secret weapon: Quinones, whose life changes irrevocably after this encounter with a fat guy from the club. 

In what stand-up comedians refer to as a “callback” and screenwriting professors call “incredibly lazy hackwork,” the math-off comes down to a single question about, of all things, the rectangular coordinate system. What a crazy coincidence! Quinones pipes up with the right answer, and Peck gets his job back. Oh, and a closing-credit sequence shows that all Peck’s impoverished protégés went on to wear suits and work in offices of some sort. 

Lambada represents opportunism at its most laughably transparent. It doesn’t even have much to do with the lambada: the grindingly arbitrary dance sequences feel like flimsy window-dressing for a phenomenally clumsy message-movie about the importance of math education. Lambada was doomed to feel dated and irrelevant; what’s almost impressive is that it was dated and irrelevant before it even came out. Today, it stands as a kitschy, campily amusing chronicle of a fad that never was, and a dance craze that failed to conquer our fine nation, or even make a tiny impact. Of course, it didn’t help that it was released on the same day as a competing lambada film. Does the other film validate the concept of a lambada movie? Find out two weeks from now, when lambada month concludes with The Forbidden Dance. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure

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