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My Year Of Flops, Totally Bitchin' Case File #121: Earth Girls Are Easy

In a strange way, Earth Girls Are Easy director Julien Temple is partially responsible for my job at The A.V. Club. When I was an unworldly 15-year-old, my older sister matriculated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During my first trip to the city to visit her, I was blown away by two Madison institutions: a crazy, homemade black and-white newspaper parody called The Onion, and Four Star Video Heaven, a way-cool video store that had a copy of Temple's Malcolm McLaren-engineered 1980 pop-punk provocation The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle. I don't know why, but I was disproportionately impressed. I decided then and there that Madison was where my future lay.

Five years later, I met the guy who opened Four Star every morning, a grad student in Medieval English or some such academic motherfuckery, named Keith Phipps. He would later assign me to review the DVD release of The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle: Such is the circle of life. Four Star had a formidable selection of softcore porn, but we were at least a semi-respectable institution, so the spank videos were inexplicably yet delightfully lumped in with documentaries, so that Clown Fuckers shared space with the oeuvres of Errol Morris and Les Blank.

In spite of my early reverence for Swindle, I nevertheless always associated Julien Temple with Russell Mulcahy, another director who alternated between film and music videos. It wasn't until Temple triumphed with his revelatory Sex Pistols documentary The Filth And The Fury—a film that both complements and corrects The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle—that I came to realize that Temple was an ambitious, smart, consistently interesting filmmaker with a filmography at once eclectic and cohesive. His films weren't always successful, but they always aimed high, whether Temple was adapting Colin MacInnes' cultishly adored mod novel Absolute Beginners for the big screen in 1986, making swooningly cinematic biopics about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth (Pandaemonium) or Jean Vigo (Vigo), or fusing his love of film and musical history with documentaries like Glastonbury and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.

Temple is a real auteur, a man of ideas who also makes glossy commercials for pop songs. Mulcahy, on the other hand, is just the dude what directed Scorpion King 2 and Residential Evil: Extinction, as well as Highlander and Highlander 2: The Renegade Version. (Incidentally, after the totally badass renegade version of Highlander 2 was released, the original was retitled Highlander 2: The Boring, Lame-O Conformist Version For Squares And Dumbasses.) Associating Temple with Mulcahy was like sticking Thin Blue Line in with Bathroom Sluts 3.

In the comments for my Cutthroat Island Case File, a reader suggested I should revisit Earth Girls Are Easy. I'm doing this one for you, dear commenter, and not due to fuzzy-yet-delightful boyhood memories of Geena Davis in a wet bikini. Mmm, Geena Davis in a wet bikini. Speaking of Geena Davis in a wet bikini, here's a clip showing just that.

You're welcome. If Easy had done nothing but put Davis in a wet bikini for five minutes, that alone would have merited being crowned a Secret Success. The filmmakers could walk away knowing they'd made the world a better place. Ah, but Earth Girls Are Easy is an equal-opportunity leerfest with more on its mind than T&A.; The hunky aliens are sexualized and drooled over even more than the women. You can practically hear the cameraman panting as shaved aliens played by Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, and Jim Carrey are unveiled for the first time. As its title betrays, Easy is a heavy-breathing sex comedy, but there's something perversely wholesome about its sexuality: It's smutty in an incongruously innocent way. It has a wonderfully uncomplicated attitude toward sex as something natural and awesome and sweet, a point of view that was as refreshing at the height of AIDS panic as it was rare.

By the time Easy hit theaters in early summer 1989, star Geena Davis was an Academy Award winner. You can only imagine how delighted her handlers must have been that their heavyweight thespian was following up The Accidental Tourist with something called Earth Girls Are Easy. In the space of months, Davis went from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least to the sublimely ridiculous.

Easy is unabashedly a trifle, but it's an inspired one. Temple and screenwriters Julie "Not Downtown, the Other One" Brown, Charlie Coffey, and Terrence E. "Not The One That Wrote Frankie & Johnny" McNally were aiming for a giddy day-glo comedy, a shiny, happy homage to Frank Tashlin (think of it as Earth Girls Can't Help It), beach-party movies, Rebel Without A Cause, and The Nutty Professor. It's a movie-movie that betrays Temple and his collaborator's love of the trashier recesses of American popular culture with every overstuffed frame. In its throwback ebullience, it's a white-trash version of Down With Love.

The ravishing Davis stars as a ditzy cosmetologist engaged to womanizing doctor Charles Rocket. The rangy, blandly handsome Rocket was undoubtedly the most tragic of Saturday Night Live's handsome goofballs. He had the wholesome good looks of a Midwestern anchorman and a predilection for smarm that made him perfect for playing WASPy cads in silly comedies. Hated producer Jean "Ayatollah" Doumanian pegged Rocket as the breakout star of the notorious 1980-1981 season, but Rocket never took off, and he was famously fired for swearing on the air during a "Who Shot JR?"-themed episode of SNL. After a few decades of supporting parts in film and television, Rocket committed suicide by cutting his own throat in 2005. But he's perfectly cast here as Davis' unfaithful fiancé.

Davis is understandably distraught when she tries to surprise Rocket with an impromptu evening of role-playing and lingerie, and he comes home with a conquest from work. Her sadness turns to curiosity, then to something approaching glee, when a spaceship full of furry intergalactic hunks crash-lands in her swimming pool. Aliens who visit Earth solely to leer at Geena Davis in a bikini immediately have my sympathy.

Goldblum, Carrey, and Wayans play the Earth-girl-loving space cadets as a cross between overgrown children and horny sailors on furlough. The spacey trio halfheartedly aspires to fix their spaceship and return home, but mostly they just want to get laid. There's a strange purity to their unapologetic horniness.

Davis and her colleague Brown give the fellas a makeover, then let them learn about Earthlings' mysterious ways by mindlessly consuming and repeating everything they see on television. One of the film's slyest jokes is that Goldblum, Carrey, and Wayans communicate almost exclusively through a derivative, half-assed vernacular of soundbites, movie and television dialogue, and things they've overheard, yet no one looks at them askance. By the low, low standards of the Valley, the aliens are unusually eloquent conversationalists, even though they're merely repeating childish gibberish.

TV Funhouse had an awesome cartoon called The Baby, The Immigrant, and The Guy On Mushrooms; I may have referenced it here before. The joke was that all three easily impressed characters tended to view the world with fresh eyes and see even the most mundane phenomenon as wondrous and new. Well, the baby, the immigrant, and the guy on mushrooms have nothing on Earth Girls' horndog aliens. The sequences where the fellas acclimate themselves to their bizarre new surroundings make the mundane seem foreign by conveying what the deeply superficial culture of Southern California must look like to brothers from another planet.

Easy is filled with neat little treats for movie buffs, like the sequence where the boys go from watching Rebel Without A Cause to a nightclub that cinephiles will immediately recognize as a dressed-up version of Rebel's famous Griffith Observatory. Or the fantasy where Davis, having just had sex with Goldblum, suddenly sees aliens everywhere, including Robby The Robot from Forbidden Planet. Robby, incidentally, went on to make a cheeky in-joke cameo in another flop from a proud movie geek/Tashlin aficionado: Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back In Action.

With the exception of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Carrey has never been that good at playing human beings with feelings, emotions, and self-restraint, so casting him as a spastic ADD alien from planet LookatmeImcrazy plays to his strengths. Carrey's mimicry and shameless mugging is a lot more bearable when his overly caffeinated shtick is relegated to the background.

Goldblum has always given off an extraterrestrial vibe: He seems to be operating at a different frequency than the puny man-animals cast opposite him. But here, he perversely yet satisfyingly underplays the role of a sexually accomplished space alien. While Carrey and Wayans mug up a storm, Goldblum maintains a stillness and quiet authority that helps sell the romance. Like Matthew Modine in Cutthroat Island, Goldblum here plays the girl role: He's eye candy, unabashedly the love interest.

Davis was born in the wrong era. She would have killed in screwball comedies, playing glamour girls as daffy as they are gorgeous. Imagine how much better Intolerable Cruelty would have been with Davis in the Catherine Zeta-Jones role. She's a great comedian who seldom gets a chance to show off her comic chops. She's absolutely brilliant at playing a woman so besotted with her intergalactic beau that she realize he has the conversational gifts, intellectual acumen, and originality of a space parrot. It's a very smart take on a very stupid woman.

Though Easy is very much a Julien Temple movie, a dizzy pop valentine to movies, music, and the infectious stupidity of Southern Californian culture, it also belongs very much to co-writer/co-star Brown, who developed a goofball persona as a kind of Wal-Mart Bette Midler: a brassy, saucy redhead with a big mouth and even bigger libido. She specializes in arch, self-conscious camp, and while there's a whole lot of that in Easy Temple, ace cinematographer Oliver Stapleton—who picked up an Independent Spirit nomination for his shiny, happy work here—Goldblum and especially the radiant Davis imbue Brown's bawdy material with something resembling class.

It would be tempting to say that Temple and Brown's cotton-candy confection gets silly in its third act, but of course the film is silly from its very first frame: delightfully so. But Easy seems to get away from the filmmakers toward the end. It begins to feel sloppy and random, and a production number showcasing the musical-comedy stylings of the fabulous Julie Brown feels out of place and unnecessary, though now would probably be a good time to point out that Easy is also a semi-musical filled with singing, dancing, a surprisingly awesome dance-off between Wayans and a Jheri-curled pretender at a disco (needless to say, someone gets served) and elaborate production numbers.

Alas, critics and audiences proved immune to Easy's loopy charms. In spite of the scantily clad Oscar winner in the lead role, an uncharacteristically dreamy Goldblum, and that Carrey jerk mugging up a storm in the margins, Easy grossed less than half its modest $10 million budget. As for the critics, they were about as kind to a movie called Earth Girls Are Easy as you'd expect. In the 19 years since its release, Easy has gone from tacky to deliciously dated.

At heart, Easy is a kitschy music-video twist on Beauty And The Beast, a Jean Cocteau film that's referenced extensively. See, I told you Easy was stupid in a really smart way. In that respect, it's a goofily perfect companion film to The Fly, another film where Davis falls in love with a strange creature played by Goldblum. Davis and Goldblum's brief stint as a sort of mutant Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn contradicted the conventional wisdom that real-life couples make the worst onscreen lovers. But more than anything, Easy is, to borrow one of Brown's colorful colloquialisms, a "mental margarita," a breezy cinematic holiday, a guilty pleasure waiting to be rediscovered.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success