Maybe going into “Take Me Home Tonight” expecting something like a John Hughes movie was completely delusional, but when your 80s-set movie is less “Just One of the Guys” allure and more like the second-rate “Can’t Hardly Wait” wannabes that flooded the late-90s/early-00s, well, we can’t help but call bullshit. If you’re gonna set your comedy in that decade, it’s gotta have certain characteristics, not just video tapes and poofy hair — here its something akin to a downloadable “skin” for an MP3 player. A period piece isn’t just costumes and clever art design, it has to feel like that moment through in writing, acting, direction, etc — it especially can’t feel like some pretty people playing dress up. That just feels cheap.
Michael Dowse (“Fubar“) begins his comedy with a typical scenario, one just loose enough for plenty of gags but with enough room for heart — Matt (Topher Grace), a recent tech school grad (but more recently an aimless Suncoast video employee) is drafted to the party of the year by trusty friend Barry (Dan Fogler) and twin sister Wendy (a severely underused Anna Faris), despite his disinterest in the festivities. However, this indifference dissipates once he runs into his old high school crush, Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), and discovers that she will be attending said party. He pretends to not know her while also conjuring a lie concerning his “sweet job” at Goldman Sachs (a joke which attempts squat), busily plotting his way into her heart. Our indecisive friend now has a goal! Now if only he could muster up the courage to do more than tell tall-tales.
80s comedies either had no idea that they were often times too silly, or just didn’t give a shit. There’s something respectable in that, something which makes even the worst movie this writer has grown up with (aka “Fast Food“) quite enjoyable. They always moved briskly with a lack of intelligence that never felt insulting. On the other hand, “Take Me Home Tonight” cares too much, and when it’s not funny (such as one of the many times Matt is caught in an awkward situation) it grinds to a complete halt. In fact, much of the movie’s energy comes from the generally shrug-worthy Fogler, whose hijinks with a stolen car and cougar-mom are much more entertaining than the rest of the film’s tacked on “impending adulthood” story lines and obvious humor.
While Barry is off on a coke-binge and Wendy is being wasted in a “my boyfriend is dumb/unsatisfactory” plotline, Matt manages to woo Tori to a completely different party, getting more intimate with one another throughout the night. Generally it’s a mixed-bag here, with some juvenile instances (they unfortunately play “the penis game,” which involves saying penis louder and louder until someone hears you, which might remind you of that kid you stopped being friends with in junior high for a reason), but when they hit actually nail some substance and occasional depth, they hit a stride and have chemistry like no other. Needless to say, Grace is nothing close to John Cusack, so he can’t carry all the varying romantic/silly scenes all by himself. However, the less jejune scenes featuring him and Palmer hitting it off have an undeniable charm to them, such as their intimate conversation during a night-time highway ride. Together they give some life to rather derivative romantic material, so long as Dowse isn’t forcing them to potty-humor, which they can’t manage to make work or make funny for the life of them.
Eventually reality hits and Tori discovers Matt has been lying, which leads to her storming off, Matt catching a ride with Barry, and getting into a minor car accident. Here is where the film truly derails, with Officer Matt’s Dad showing up to the scene and using their illegal behavior to force him to get off of his ass and make a life decision concerning his future. With his nightstick, he beats down on the car (right, the stolen one) and claims that Topher must “get a better job” in order to fix it. It’s not much longer after they’re thrown into the back of the police car that it’s revealed a goof, where the patriarch basically says “No, but seriously, you have to get a real job.” You heard it right — one of the plot lines is resolved by relieving the characters of any consequences of their unlawful and harmful actions (imagine if your dad was a sort-of Deus ex machine?), and instead of attempting any sort of believable conclusion to the main character’s uncertain future ambition, it’s resolved in such a cringe-worthy way that’ll leave you wishing for a “Varsity Blues” esque father-son meltdown. At least that was going for some sort of passion and weight, as silly as James Van Der Beek with an accent is, or rather, as silly as James Van Der Beek is in general.
Of course, that little scene could’ve been saved if it was at all funny. “Take Me Home Tonight” misfires entirely too much, and its about as unsure of its own strengths, goals, and intentions as its main characters are, making the entire thing a terrible drag. Michael Dowse may have impressed with his crazy “FUBAR” and “It’s All Gone Pete Tong,” but here he shows none of those wild, comedic chops, falling victim to lifeless jokes and pointless high-comedy profile cameos (Michael Ian Black has a moment or two, but what can Bob Odenkirk do in a five second appearance?). Even awful comedies have a place in this world, blaring from TV sets at a sleep-over party, but mediocre funnies have no home. [C-]