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80s Soundtrack Nostalgia in “Easy A,” “Going the Distance” and “Heartbreaker”

80s Soundtrack Nostalgia in "Easy A," "Going the Distance" and "Heartbreaker"

There’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in recent films, including the rom-coms “Going the Distance” and “Heartbreaker,” that culminates (so far as I know) this week with the highly derivative — but knowingly so — teen comedy “Easy A.” The new movie stars Emma Stone as a girl with such an appreciation for 1980s high school movies that it seems to inadvertently come through in both her dialogue (though her “never had one lesson” remark may have been an intentional “Ferris Bueller” nod) and her social life choices, the latter which turns her into a kind of reverse Ronald Miller (from “Can’t Buy Me Love”). The end of the film, without giving too much or anything unexpected away, involves a mashing together of allusions, all of which somewhat require the viewer to have seen the cited ’80s films, or at least paid attention during an earlier montage of licensed clips. One of these nostalgic references is an audio of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from “The Breakfast Club.”

But who doesn’t know the association between that song and that movie, even those who haven’t seen the essential John Hughes classic? Well, it’s possible after 25 years that some who go see “Easy A” won’t completely get it, yet not as many who might not appreciate the significance of the riding lawnmower. Regardless, is it okay for a modern movie to be so dependent on such trust in pop culture awareness? And doesn’t some of that reflection cause for us to be so reminded of the older, better films that the enjoyment of the new film is rendered less by comparison? Yes, and though “Easy A” directly acknowledges (via Stone’s webcam-enabled fourth-wall-breaking narration) it is not as good as the Hughes, Cameron Crowe and other teen films it references, that doesn’t excuse it from being an insignificant work, one that barely can stand alone on its own merits (of which there are admittedly a few).

As for the other two films making up the trend, both “Going the Distance” and “Heartbreaker” are slightly more innocent and less dependent on past works. Still, the former has a single simple gag that works best for those who recognize its “Top Gun” soundtrack cue. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” is played when the leads start to make out, and at first the audience is led to believe it’s a non-diegetic sound (unheard by the characters) but is revealed to be an appropriate diegetic choice (heard by those on-screen) by an off-screen character. The audio reference doesn’t come out of nowhere, at least, since Justin Long’s character has just told Drew Barrymore’s character that “Top Gun” is his favorite movie, and there is a poster of the movie featured in the scene. But it’s not exactly spelled out for people either.

Same goes for “Heartbreaker,” which similarly deals with the favorite film of Vanessa Paradis’ character (which Romain Duris’ character also pretends he loves), “Dirty Dancing.” Here it’s helped that the characters watch a DVD of the movie, and Duris also is seen practicing dance moves from it, and so we’re reminded of certain moments that will be referenced later. Eventually there is a scene in which Daris plays the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” leads Paradis in a step-for-step re-creation of the climactic “Dirty Dancing” number, complete with the overhead lift, and therefore properly impresses the difficult-to-woo assignment. The concept and its execution have varied levels of plausibility, but the thing is, it is a fairly realistic situation for our pop culture-obsessed times.

The reason that I’m most annoyed with the nostalgic music and dance number in “Heartbreaker” is that it’s otherwise a very charming and relatively original romantic comedy. But employing an old film’s climax as its own romantic game changer is extremely unsatisfying. For me, anyway. I’m sure at least fans of “Dirty Dancing” will disagree. I just believe every new film should make an effort to create its own cinematic memories. In the end, movies like “Heartbreaker” and “Easy A” are not remembered for adding anything new to the medium; they just consist too much of directly recycled material without even really adapting or updating them. We already did the not forgetting about “The Breakfast Club” and had the time of our lives with “Dirty Dancing.” What new aural experiences do get with these recent movies? Unfortunately, none.

“Easy A” opens wide this Friday, September 17.
“Going the Distance” is in its second week of wide release.
“Heartbreaker” is currently playing in select cities and will be available on IFC On Demand beginning next Wednesday, September 22.

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