Back Into The Night: How Superbad Recalls The Restless Soul Of '80s American Movies
The new teen comedy Superbad has gotten a lot of praise for being smarter than the average horny-teenager movie, though for all its raunchy dialogue and contemporary concerns, its basic formula is pretty familiar. Three high-school boys try to score booze for a party, in hopes that said booze will get them laid. Along the way, they have wild adventures that shake them out of their usual weekend routine of sitting around their parents' basements, talking about what they'd like to be doing. They see a side of their suburban community that they didn't know existed before, populated by violent drug addicts and weirdo cops. And the next morning, they've discovered something about what they're capable of, and what they really want. Anyone who watched movies in the '80s knows what Superbad is. It's an "into the night" movie.
What's an into-the-night movie? It's essentially about one anxious character (or group of characters) embarking on an illicit adventure and emerging transformed. Most often, the stories take place at night, but not always. Sometimes they happen over a whole summer, in the blazing light of day. Sometimes they're comedies, and sometimes mysteries. But what they have in common is an acknowledgment that somewhere, lurking in the shadows of polite society, there are people getting ridiculously freaky. All we have to do is knock on the right door, or turn down the right street, and we can catch a glimpse of the human experience's full menu of options.
The significance of the into-the-night movie in the '80s had a lot to do with the character of the times. When the decade dawned, the "counterculture as the new mainstream" ideal had been all but squelched—mostly by the counterculture's own unsteady hand—and following the election of Ronald Reagan, an older set of values retrenched. It became commonly accepted that collectivism was for suckers, drugs were for degenerates, and that sexual experimentation was a surefire recipe for disease and even death. But into-the-night movies delivered a different message. Their protagonists "smoked and drank and fooled around"—to paraphrase Meatballs, released on the cusp of the '80s–and they usually didn't suffer for it. If anything, they thrived.
That is, if they followed the path to enlightenment detailed below:
1. Start in a rut.
The holy trinity of '80s into-the-night movies is After Hours, Something Wild, and, yes, Into The Night, all of which begin with cubicle-bound nebbishes—Griffin Dunne, Jeff Daniels, and Jeff Goldblum, respectively—getting jarred out of their routines by chance encounters with dangerous women. Dunne meets Soho art-chick Rosanna Arquette, who invites him to come down to her funky neighborhood to buy one of her roommate's papier-mâché paperweights. Daniels inadvertently skips out on a diner check and gets hassled by Melanie Griffith, who winds up tossing his beeper out the window and forcing him to attend her high-school reunion. And Goldblum impulsively drives out to the airport after catching his wife cheating, and gets dragged into a jewel-theft caper when edgy moll Michelle Pfeiffer hops into his car.
In all three movies, it's clear that the "grey flannel suit" path to success isn't cutting it for guys who grew up in the '60s and '70s, probably because deep down, they'd expected the culture to remake itself into something more fun before they were compelled to suck it up and strap on a tie. Summer Lovers, on the other hand, catches one of those dudes before he even gets snared. Peter Gallagher plays a recent college graduate postponing his entry into his family's corporate dynasty by getting decadent in Greece with his girlfriend Daryl Hannah and local sculptress Valérie Quennessen. (Note how the artsy types usually captivate our heroes.) By the end of the summer, they've all decided that the bourgeois conventions of "marriage" and "family" aren't for them, and they'll all be happier getting their ménage on by the seaside for as long as they can stand it. Which is nice work, if you can afford it.
Not every protagonist who headed into the night in the '80s was a yuppie. Some were just losers, like Craig Wasson in Body Double, playing an out-of-work actor who agrees to housesit for a rich buddy, and gets embroiled in a murder mystery involving a woman—again played by Melanie Griffith—whom he watches dance naked in a house down the hill. On one level, Body Double reinforces the "sex equals death" paranoia of the '80s, but on a higher level, it sends a message to those who can't see past their own humdrum lives: Get a telescope.
2. Get tempted.
Of course, Body Double also nods to the original into-the-night genre, film noir, where "innocent" men discover that they—along with everyone else—bear the stain of original sin. Wasson is tempted by the smoldering sexuality of Griffith, who in some ways is Brian De Palma's snotty deconstruction of noir's "femme fatale" archetype. (She's a porn star, and not all that bright.) Meanwhile, in Body Heat, mediocre lawyer William Hurt deals with a real-deal femme, Kathleen Turner, who uses her wiles to convince him to help her murder her husband. He's too horny and dimwitted to make big money any other way, and what else was the '80s about, if not making big money?
In a neat gender-switch, David Mamet's House Of Games lets psychiatrist Lindsay Crouse get tempted by con man Joe Mantegna, while in the wiggy neo-noir Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke's temptation is even more Biblical, as he gets lulled by the literal Lucifer. But for an unconventional spin on noir and the into-the-night formula, nothing tops David Lynch's nightmarish Blue Velvet, which drags squeaky-clean small-town boy Kyle MacLachlan through the murk, pulling him away from wholesome girlfriend Laura Dern and toward sultry, broken nightclub singer Isabella Rossellini. The two women in his life meet when a battered, naked Rossellini shows up on MacLachlan's street while he's coming home from a date with Dern, and when she steps out of the shadows, his expression suggests that he's been caught masturbating in church. MacLachlan fancies himself a man of the world after he dallies with Rossellini, but in some times and places, being worldly doesn't have much cachet.
Besides After Hours and Something Wild, the quintessential movie about temptation in the '80s may well be Risky Business, where one frustrating night spent circling escort ads in a Chicago alt-weekly leads stressed-out high-school senior Tom Cruise to place an impulsive phone call and end up with prostitute Rebecca De Mornay as a seemingly permanent houseguest. One "mistake," and Cruise pays and pays for it.
3. Get in trouble, preferably with added destruction.
One of the signature moments in Risky Business comes as Cruise watches his father's Porsche sink into Lake Michigan; for materialist symbolism, it's hard to beat a trashed car. Just ask John Hughes, who in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, lets Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck wreck the roadster of Ruck's uptight dad (and his fancy garage to boot). And in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Hughes has John Candy total the rental auto that Steve Martin's credit cards paid for.
After Hours is a symphony of destruction, as Dunne inadvertently crosses one Soho resident after another, often by messing with their stuff. And in House Of Games, the con hinges on Crouse believing that she's witnessed a murder—which bonds her to a band of nogoodniks, not exactly against her will.
But trouble doesn't come any harder than in Lost In America, where an exasperated adman played by writer-director-actor Albert Brooks quits his job, sinks all his savings into an RV, and sets out to "touch Indians" with his wife, Julie Hagerty. Unfortunately, Hagerty asks that they spend a night in a nice Las Vegas hotel on their way out into a purer life, and while Brooks sleeps, she gambles away the money they were supposed to live on for roughly the next decade. Their nest egg is broken. The Indians remain untouched.
4. Get a buddy/Make an enemy.
The bad guys are the memorable characters in into-the-night movies—like gas-huffing Blue Velvet ganglord Dennis Hopper, whose animal attraction to Rossellini mirrors MacLachlan's own barely caged lust. Or wiry Ray Liotta in Something Wild, who ruins Daniels oat-sowing adventure with Griffith by delivering a down-to-the-bone ass-beating.
But even more than the villains, the sidekicks help our heroes' respective journeys along. In Repo Man, Harry Dean Stanton teaches Emilio Estevez the practicalities and deeper philosophies of car repossession. In Ferris Bueller, Broderick squires Ruck around downtown Chicago, showing him how to enjoy life on his family's dime. In Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Candy's working-class vulgarity gives the prim, professional Martin a lesson in loosening up. And in Midnight Run, convicted embezzler Charles Grodin gets under the skin of bounty hunter Robert De Niro, who may know more than Grodin about navigating the underworld, but lacks his quarry's disarmingly kindly soul.
Sometimes, friendship comes in threes. In Down By Law, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie meet in prison and become reluctant partners in a jailbreak, and a subsequent run through the Louisiana bayou. And in The Last American Virgin, Lawrence Monoson follows the advice of his two sex-obsessed best friends and ends up sexless and penniless after paying for the abortion of the girl he has a crush on. A girl who got pregnant by one of those pals. And who goes back to that pal after she recovers from the procedure. With friends like these, etc.
Repo Man's underlying message concerns the way L.A. punker Estevez becomes a natural at boosting cars legally, because being antisocial and working for the man aren't that fundamentally different. A lot of '80s movies are about subcultures learning to conform, like in Down By Law, where the three old-school hipster nightcrawlers discover that their time has long since passed, and the only way to get right is to light out to the middle of nowhere. Even more poignantly, in Running On Empty, an entire family fragments because the hippie parents—on the run from the law since a protest went awry in the '60s—can't hold on to their son River Phoenix, who's too smart and talented to hide. They have to send him out of anonymity, and hope that some of the ideals they instilled in him take hold.
Meanwhile, by the end of Dunne's night in After Hours, he's begun to figure out how to navigate the topsy-turvy world of New York's new bohemia, and to turn its denizens against each other. And in Lost In America, Brooks finally discovers the true U.S.A. when he has to park his RV in a trailer park and take a minimum-wage job. That painful reality sends him scrambling back to the city—New York instead of Los Angeles—to beg for his six-figure advertising gig back.
But nobody in the '80s adapted like Cruise in Risky Business, who masterminded an off-the-books Junior Achievement project by turning his lovely suburban home into a brothel. Time of your life, huh kid?
6. Wake up.
Princeton could use a guy like Cruise, he's told at the end of Risky Business, as his dad holds up a letter from the university's interviewer, a happy customer of Cruise's makeshift whorehouse. In Body Double, Wasson escapes from his near-death experiences as an amateur detective and becomes a braver actor. In Blue Velvet, MacLachlan and Dern take an intimate moment to reflect, objectively at last, on the nature of evil, as a weird-ass, mechanical-looking bird chirps in the background, greeting the new dawn.
Aside from The Last American Virgin and After Hours—which ends with Dunne deposited back at his word-processing job, not having slept a wink—everything tends to work out for those who ventured into the night in the '80s. Even in A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Reardon, poet and player River Phoenix gets to cheat on his rich, virginal girlfriend with her slutty best friend and with a friend of his own mother, yet come out of it the next morning with the grudging respect of his gruff ol' pop.
Of course, Jimmy Reardon, unlike most of the movies above, was set in the past, just like Porky's, The Outsiders, Stand By Me, and a handful of other movies that skirted the '80s increasingly dry repression by hearkening back to an earlier time, when the seeds of the counterculture were originally planted. In a recent essay on Bonnie & Clyde, New York Times critic A.O. Scott quoted Pauline Kael's original review, in which she explained how the film captured the unspoken concerns and unformed aesthetic of the late-'60s youth movement, insisting, "Once something is said or done on the screens of the world, it can never again belong to a minority, never again be the private possession of an educated, or 'knowing,' group.
Yet by the '80s, that's exactly what was happening, as the culture at large began to assert that the youthful ideals of the previous decade-plus were aberrant and miniscule, held primarily by individuals looking for cheap thrills—and not, say, by masses of young Americans expressing their gratitude for liberty by exercising it. A handful of movies scattered across the decade served as beacons to those desperate not to feel alone in their appetites—base as they sometimes were. Those movies, and their progeny like Superbad today, beckoned us to watch, learn, and take comfort in our shared weakness for sin.