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Topher Grace's 'Take Me Home Tonight' takes us back to the 1980s

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 10:03 AM

Topher Grace admits that he does not remember 1988 very well. This is understandable, because he was only 10 when "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" dominated the box office and Michael Dukakis ran for president.

So it's puzzling that a passion project for the actor, his new movie "Take Me Home Tonight," is a coming-of-age comedy that unfolds during Labor Day weekend 1988. The movie opened Friday.

In addition to starring as the protagonist ( an MIT grad wasting his potential by working at a video store), Grace co-conceived the story and co-produced for the first time - because, he says, he felt so strongly about portraying the '80s accurately.

"What I remember is there was a lot of great, magical stuff happening in the '80s and it has been hard for movies to celebrate that," Grace, 32, said in a recent interview in Washington.

Many of the movies - say, the ones in which Adam Sandler performs at weddings or John Cusack and his buddies make use of a time-transporting jacuzzi - spoof the era, reducing it to skinny ties and pegged pants, he says.

"Back in the '70s, no one said, 'What's up with these bell bottoms?' " he says. "In the same way, we wanted to lose all those lines where someone goes, 'How small is this cellphone?' Or, 'The CD will never happen - audiotapes forever!' But that's very hard to do because it's so easy to make fun of it."

Hollywood - not to mention the perpetually wistful, backward-looking public - has long had a love affair with the retro. In the '80s, the "Wonder Years" of the '60s suddenly seemed cool again. In the '90s, those aforementioned bell bottoms and disco days reemerged (an era Grace knows something about, having starred on Fox's "That's '70s Show" before making films such as "Traffic" and "Spider-Man 3").

It's now time for the '80s to be the flashback of choice. (But you can smell the '90s resurgence coming, can't you?)

Back in the late '00s, when Grace and Gordon Kaywin, his producing partner and former roommate at New Hampshire's Brewster Academy, first batted around the concept for "Take Me Home Tonight," it felt fresh to re-create that John Hughes movie vibe for a new generation. At the same time, they wanted to follow the cinematic footprint of time-capsule movies such as "American Graffiti" and "Dazed and Confused."

After coming up with some set pieces (a dance-off was mandatory) and their ideal list for the soundtrack, the pair handed over writing duties to "That '70s Show" veterans Jeff and Jackie Filgo. A cast - including Anna Faris, Tony Award-winner Dan Fogler and newcomer Teresa Palmer - was assembled. The movie was shot in 2007. Then it sat unreleased, because, according to Grace, executives at Universal Studios' Rogue Pictures, its distributor, wanted to cut some of the comedy involving cocaine use.

"Our attitude was, you can't do a movie about Prohibition and not show alcohol," he says. "And you certainly can't do a movie about a bunch of kids in their mid-20s in the '80s in Beverly Hills at an all-night party and not show cocaine."

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, heads of Imagine Entertainment, the company backing the movie, told Grace not to change a thing. "It's already dated," Grace recalls them saying, "so hold on for a year."

Eventually, upstart studio Relativity Media acquired Rogue and decided to release the movie with every gram of powder present and accounted for. (Howard could not be reached to comment, but a rep at Relativity corroborated this version of events.)

The question now is whether audiences - after all those "Hot Tub Time Machine" trips, big-screen versions of '80s TV shows and Hughes references in "Easy A" - will be up for yet another journey back to the time of "Back to the Future."

Susannah Gora, an '80s film aficionado who wrote the book "You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes and Their Impact on a Generation," says it may be a while before we completely tire of the yuppies-and-Q*Bert era.

"There were all of these things in the '80s culture that instilled a sense of optimism, and I think it's natural to want to return to that now," she says.

Obviously that would be perfectly fine with Grace, who has moved on to other projects - including a role as former U.S. Treasury chief of staff Jim Wilkinson in the HBO movie "Too Big to Fail" - but still sounds pretty invested in "Take Me Home Tonight." It's clear that he wants this movie to be embraced for reasons beyond box-office dollars.

"I just sort of miss that layering in a film like '16 Candles,' " Grace says. "This is probably closer to '16 Candles' than anything else, where the actors are allowed to do lots of different things. I got to do a lot of funny stuff and a lot of touching stuff. I wanted to be in one of [those movies]. That's why I wanted to make it."

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