Take Me Home Tonight is set in the late 1980s, for reasons that seem to have less to do with nostalgia for that era than with nostalgia for its movies. Certainly the 1980s were not the last time young people had simple desires like getting the phone number of the girl or boy of their dreams, deciding what to do with their lives and coping with their parental challenges. But throughout that decade, filmmakers like Cameron Crowe, Paul Brickman and John Hughes (okay, to be honest, mostly Hughes) took those simple elements and made them into unforgettable cinematic comfort food — movies like Say Anything, Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
In the grand scheme of things, Take Me Home Tonight, directed by Michael Dowse, is hardly unforgettable, but it is an amiable diversion, kept afloat by some comic moments of the raunchy, silly variety, and by something that does feel rather retro: a kindness to its youthful characters. In Hughesian fashion, the action takes place over a 24-hour period and involves a raucous party. It is Labor Day weekend, 1988, and MIT grad Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) has spent his first postcollegiate summer assessing his future. Translation: he’s living at his parents’ home in the San Fernando Valley, working at a video store in the mall and hanging with his loser best friend from high school, Barry (Dan Folger). There’s no polite way to say this, but Folger is a clone of Curtis Armstrong — “Booger” from those other ’80s flicks, The Revenge of the Nerds series, only fatter.
Matt may have had the brain for MIT, but like so many Hughes characters his background is blue collar; his father (Michael Biehn) is an LAPD officer. In a subplot, his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) has just received a letter she is afraid to open but which Matt is sure is her acceptance to graduate school. Grace has a strange habit of addressing the forehead of the person he’s talking to, but he makes Matt the kind of likable guy we believe is truly supportive and protective of his sister.
On the day of the party, thrown by Wendy’s meathead boyfriend Kyle (Chris Pratt, who forever won my heart on Everwood), Matt catches sight of his unrequited crush from high school, Tori Frederking (Theresa Palmer) at the mall. She’s doing an internship at investment bank Drexel Burnham (in real life, soon to be destroyed by Michael Milken). She’s mildly flirtatious, which gets Matt’s hopes up, understandably; Palmer looks like a sparkly cross between Naomi Watts and Kristen Stewart. In the grand tradition of romantic comedy leading men everywhere, Matt tells Tori a stupid lie to try to impress her and claims to be working at Goldman Sachs. (If only he’d waited: by the ’90s, Matt could have worn that video-store job like a badge of honor and pretended to be the next Quentin Tarantino.) Tori mentions that she’ll be at Kyle’s party, and the die is cast.
An expensive and impressive car is “borrowed” for the evening. Bonus: there’s sizable bag of cocaine in the glove compartment. “We’re not cocaine people,” Matt warns Barry, but of course the narcotic bird in the hand is going to get used. Some funny things happen because of the cocaine which, come to think of it, may be the main reason to set your movie in the 1980s. Back then, the notion of cocaine as a social lubricant could still be amusing, Less Than Zero notwithstanding.
The movie has the deliberately (one hopes) cheap look of the standard 1980s comedy: underlit, shot in unassuming locations. And it has a soundtrack that pulses with the mood of the time: “Bette Davis Eyes” and “Let My Love Open the Door” make great scene setters, at least for the nostalgic 40-something demographic. Those are the kind of viewers who, while they aren’t likely to make Take Me Home Tonight their date night film, might pick it up on DVD along with Hot Tub Time Machine for a pleasurable evening at home. But what does this movie do for today’s youthful demographic — people the same age as Matt, Wendy and Barry? Only the box office knows.
Younger fans might be thrown off by a more accidental piece of retro irony, tucked in amongst all the intended retro irony. Watching Grace, who was so charming in That ’70s Show, and Faris, you’re thinking, Wait — aren’t they a little too old for all this? Grace played a sharp young business exec in 2004’s In Good Company, after all. Seven years later, we’re supposed to buy that he just got out of college? And Faris is 34. The back story here is that Take Me Home Tonight wrapped years ago, in 2007, but that it’s been on the shelf or in test audience hell ever since. The reason Grace and others have given in interviews is that the film’s recreational cocaine use presented a problem. Ironic, then, that it is finally being released at a time when virtually the entire country is having a laugh over — or maybe with — Charlie Sheen, the seemingly unrepentant drug abuser who just happened to be a quintessential 1980s star.