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Non-Review Review: Take Me Home Tonight

There’s something strangely charming about Take Me Home Tonight. I say “strangely” because I’m not blind to the movie’s many awkward flaws. I can spot the predictable plotting, the douchebag entitled protagonists and the shallow “high school crush” romance. None of these are any less conventional than the plot’s attempt to conceal saccharine romanticism with cheap lowbrow humour. I can see those problems with the film, but for some reason I think it works well in spite of them. I think the strongest aspect of Take Me Home Tonight is not the eighties setting (though that helps), but the sense that Topher Grace may have finally found his niche.

We can dance if we want to…

Grace has somewhat awkwardly bounced around Hollywood for the last decade or so. His highest profile gig was the role of the villainous Eddie Brock in Spider-Man III, managing to be the only villain in the film series that managed to make Tobey Maguire look imposing. He also turned up, more recently, playing against type in Predators. However, here Grace shows genuine skill playing comfortably off Teresa Palmer, managing to make his relatively sleazy leading character seem almost sweet.

The script doesn’t really do Grace or Palmer any favours. Palmer’s character is scarcely defined, save as the object of our lead’s affections and a woman uncomfortable with being treated as a sex object around her. There’s relatively little else of substance there. Our plucky male lead is your standard under-achieving slacker, the kind who had big ambitions but finds himself living a mundane existence. “You can’t even call yourself a failure right now,” he father explains, “because you haven’t even tried to succeed at anything yet.” We’re told that he “won the attendance award, every year”at school. The only prize he has to his name is the one he gets simply for showing up.

The craic is 80s…

And so, when presented with an opportunity to meet his high school crush again, he lies to her, embarrassed about his menial job at a video store and convinced that she’d never be interested in a loser like him. Gate-crashing parties he wasn’t invited to, pretending to be somebody he’s not, even dickishly pretending to forget his name – our lead shows signs of being a borderline manipulative sociopath in order to seduce the girl of his dreams. It’s not that much different from many modern romantic comedies, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. At one point, our lead even manages to get away with theft and massive damage to private property purely by virtue of his father’s job.

And yet, despite all this, Grace manages to make his character seem disarmingly endearing and sympathetic, and strikes up a genuine chemistry with Palmer. Grace actually makes us feel sorry enough for his pathetic and entitled character that we invest in him, and forgive the type of behaviour that would typically end with a restraining order, a substantial fine and maybe even a prison sentence. I suspect that the eighties setting actually helps this a bit. We’ve been conditioned to accept character rooted in the eighties as self-centred and entitled yuppies (although our heroes aren’t quite upwardly mobile), so it feels appropriate to follow a cast featuring them.

State of Grace…

Dan Fogler, in fairness to him, plays a deliciously sleazy eighties guy, complete with his suit and tie. His chat-up lines are suitably eighties-esque, focused on crafting the appearance of outward success with little depth. “You ever read Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’?” he asks one lady. “I have. It’s amazing. Give you my number. I’ll loan it to you. Get back to me, at a   later date, of your choosing. And we’ll have, I don’t know, a bottle of chilled white Zin.”

What makes the movie work isn’t the fact that leads are any less full of nonsense as those vacuous airheads around them, it’s the fact that they can’t even seem to talk crap properly. “I’m not buying your bullsh!t, Barry,” one potential customer warns Dan Fogler’s character at a garage after the salesman tries to swindle him into a deal. “Or a Sedan.”The eighties were a time, pop culture would have us believe, when success was built on perception more than anything else, and there’s almost depressing about two guys who can’t even fake the attributes necessary for success.

When two tribes go to war…

In fairness, the movie actual emulates the eighties quite well – in that it doesn’t go for an over-the-top approach to the decade. Sure, there are silly sunglasses, crazy hair and one guy in a leather Thriller outfit, but there’s no painful winking at the audience. There’s nothing to suggest that the movie couldn’t be transposed to the modern day and keep the same soundtrack. (Maybe it might have to update some of its fashion sense, though.) Even the music used feels like an affectionate playlist composed by somebody who came of age during the decade, rather than a checklist of the biggest hits of the period. (Though Safety Dance does get a look in.)

Ironically, Take Me Home Tonight is best when its sincere – focusing on the countless failures of our lead characters trying to make sense of their lives. Topher Grace and Dan Fogler both do an exceptional job prevent the movie from wallowing in angst or self-pity, and keep the movie sweet without allowing it to ever become saccharine. Unfortunately, the movie seems to try to offset this earnest sincerity with crass gross-out humour. Some of it works. Some of it just feels like it was inserted purely because… well, things might be getting a little too heavy, so here’s a shot of a guy throwing up. Or boobies.

He wears his sunglasses at night…

Grace and Palmer carry the movie, and Dan Fogler provides solid support. However, the movie also features a number of nice performances from other actors. There’s something quite “off” about Anne Faris’ supporting turn as our lead character’s sister. She just doesn’t seem properly expressive. On the other hand, it’s nice to see Michael Biehn cast in the role of a bad-ass authority figure again. Between this and Grindhouse, I think Biehn might be making a comeback as something of a nostalgia icon.

Still, despite all this, I found myself charmed by Take Me Home Tonight. Not so charmed that I forgot its rather obvious flaws, but charmed enough that I honestly didn’t mind them. After all, it’s hard to dislike a movie that makes a point to credit a character as “that loser who always brings a guitar to the party.”

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