"Pretty in Pink" continues screenwriter John Hughes' project of deepening the teen movie genre, and even more than "The Breakfast Club" (which he also directed), highlights just how dubious that project is. Hughes seems to be plugged into teens' view of their own teenness, and moment by moment the movie can be touchingly real. But movies are more than moments, and in the end "Pretty in Pink" is as fraudulent as the junk it's supposed to transcend.
"Pretty in Pink" teams Hughes again with actress Molly Ringwald, and once again, she's searching for love. This time, she's Andie, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks given to offbeat, Annie Hall-style get-ups -- baggy dresses and embroidered jackets. Andie doesn't "fit in" -- she's an outsider, a "Zoid" -- and neither does Duckie (Jon Cryer), her endlessly faithful, endlessly unrequited swain, who dogs her in the high school halls and politely asks, "May I admire you again today?"
Life changes for Andie when Blane (Andrew McCarthy), one of the "richies," asks her out. She can't help liking him -- he's shy with a sweet smile, and easy on the eyes -- but that doesn't make her forget his snobbish friends, or her own situation. She's wheeling around in his BMW and back home, her father (Harry Dean Stanton) is unemployed.
When she's called upon to play character parts, Ringwald seems unfocused -- she can't condense herself. She's a real star, and she needs a star's elbow room to let her subtle effects accumulate, to let her presence breathe. Ringwald takes the technique of a classic film comedian , the slow burns and scrunched-up fist-on-hips irritation (her huge lips are a visual whoopee cushion), but she doesn't play it for laughs; she scales it down and passes it off for reality, and it works remarkably well.
Opposite Ringwald, McCarthy has wet, trembling eyes and a dazzling smile, but the smile isn't inspired by anything around him -- he simply flashes it at random, like a Don't Walk sign. Those big white teeth form a wall he likes to hide behind. Indeed his whole act -- and the smiles, the shyness, are all part of an act -- is calculated to hold the world at arm's length. McCarthy's anchored his performance to something real in teen-age psychology, that peculiar mix of egotism and insecurity.
While he and Ringwald are on screen together, they get an interesting interplay going, infused by some of Hughes' ingenious bits of business. When Andie balks at Blane's invitation to go upstairs with him at a party (she thinks he's planning something naughty), McCarthy promises to keep his hands in his pockets, grabs a six-pack with his elbow and a bag of pretzels with his teeth. It's just the kind of cute device someone like Blane would come up with and someone like Andie would go for. Every once in a while, "Pretty in Pink" tosses you this kind of inspired touch.
But for the most part, "Pretty in Pink" works from a standard formula -- rich boy, poor girl -- and does little to tweak or reinvent it. The fact that he's more "sensitive" doesn't really change anything.
One thing Hughes, and his director, Howard Deutch, aren't sensitive to at all is the nuances of the medium they're working in. Deutch has composed the movie mostly in huge close-ups, and the rock 'n' roll score is loud and persistent. Duckie wears clownish ensembles, porkpie hats and string ties and sport jackets with military insignias sewn on; Blane's buddy Steff (James Spader), on the other hand, wears $800 suits off the racks of "Miami Vice," and without even listening to the movie, you know, "He's poor, he's rich, and that's what's going on here."
Except for the leads, the acting follows the same oversized pattern. Cryer, particularly, is grotesquely over the top, mugging, shrugging, layering dance steps upon bits of mimicry, chewing on his purplish lips, whining his Don Knotts whine -- it's exactly the kind of frantic behaviorfest that would pass among teen-agers as great acting, but Deutch should have known better. Deutch has Spader playing a caricature of lockjawed wealth, Annie Potts (as Andie's coworker in a record store) a caricature of gum-snapping trashiness (both, to their credit, manage nicely). And what has he done to Harry Dean Stanton? All the blank dangerousness is out of Stanton -- he sits on the couch in a shaggy bathrobe, muttering fatherly wisdom in a milky voice, a domestic Yoda.
The familiarity of the story is, in a way, part of the point -- certainly, it won't bother an audience bombarded by the endless recycling of television and the non-narrative spritz of MTV. What's wrong is it doesn't seem to bother Hughes, either. His clever touches are just coloration for paint-by-the-numbers film making.
In his obsession with the Clearasil years, Hughes isn't just painting by the numbers -- he's painting himself into a corner. Ultimately, there's something narcissistic about movies like "Pretty in Pink." They're not created to bring you into other lives, they're created so teen-agers can point at the screen and say, "Look at me." Unless there's something singularly interesting about the teen experience (and Hughes never establishes there is), movies about these years remain for teen-agers, a form of communal navel gazing, and for the rest of us, a reminder of something we'd rather forget, and generally have.
Pretty in Pink, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains profanity and sexual themes.