Sixteen Candles (1984)

17 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“I can’t believe this—they *expletive deleted* forgot my birthday.”

That’s the infamous quote from the teenage comedy-drama “Sixteen Candles” after Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) realizes that her family is so busy preparing for her older sister’s wedding that they’ve forgotten her birthday. Not only that, in her eyes—it’s her sixteenth birthday. Her Sweet 16. She was expecting a big change in her life, but nobody even wishes her a “happy birthday.” It’s just a regular day. She still goes to school, where she’s not part of the in-crowd. She has a crush from afar on the big man on campus, named Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). And the class Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) is still flirting with her, unsuccessfully.

“Sixteen Candles,” written and directed by John Hughes, handles this story well. It’s a soft, gentle story about someone who feels unappreciated, like most teenagers do.

The story goes from a regular school day to a rough day at home (with her visiting grandparents and ditzy older sister) to a tough night of the school dance, when Jake finally starts to notice Samantha and tries to find time to talk to her. But every time he does, something always gets in the way—Samantha’s grandparents, the Geek, Jake’s current girlfriend who’s a total snob, etc. Will they finally wind up together? Well, what do you think?

When I first saw this movie, I liked it. I thought it had a good nature and a sense of humor. But after watching it a few more times after that, I find myself looking at it in a different way. It happens sometimes—you think you like a movie the first time you see it and then after you watch it again, the appeal wears off. “Sixteen Candles” is one of those movies; it doesn’t hold up very well.

Let me start with the negative parts of the movie. For one thing, while Samantha maintains a consistent credibility, the story around her gets more outrageous. And the more “out there” it gets, the less successful it is. While we have the story of her character going through a crisis, we’re also saddled with subplots involving the Geek, Samantha’s grandparents, and a Chinese exchange student named Long Duk Dong (Gette Watanbe) that’s staying with the family. Why not keep it simple?

I never really laughed at the behavior of the grandparents—they’re just stereotypes that you’d find in TV sitcoms. I remember chuckling at a few lines, but those were only rare. But Long Duk Dong is just obnoxious. He’s an offensive stereotype (horny Asian sidekick who provides slapstick comedy), unbelievably irritating, and on top of that, serves absolutely no purpose to the story whatsoever.

Then there’s the story of the Geek, whose real name is Ted. Played well enough by Anthony Michael Hall, the Geek starts out as an acceptable character. He pretends he’s so cool, as he’s cool with his peers, but flirting with a girl a grade older than him isn’t working out in his favor. In fact, flirting with any girl wouldn’t work for him because he’s a complete wise-guy and a bit of a spaz, hence the title “Geek.” He drives Samantha crazy, but on the night of the school dance, they do wind up alone. The Geek follows Samantha into a classroom, hoping to “get lucky” (he made a bet with his buddies that he’ll bring back her underwear if he did). But what do they do? They talk—they share their feelings. Samantha lets out her feelings about everyone forgetting her birthday, and the Geek (Ted) confesses that he’s just all talk.

That’s a good scene and it leads to a funny line when it finishes (“Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?”). But compare this to a scene in which the Geek and Jake have their own little talk, in which Geek offers advice about women that clearly Jake knows more about than him, and what have you got?

The humor is confused. Aside from racist jokes, we also have slight-disability jokes. There’s a bit where a neck-braced young girl, played by Joan Cusack, tries to drink from the water fountain, but her neck brace doesn’t allow her to lean in close enough. Is that supposed to be funny? Also, when it comes to raunchy humor, it mostly fails. Maybe because it’s rated PG (the PG-13 rating wasn’t around just yet), but they’ve already got a use of the “f” word and a full shot of female breasts. What’s there to lose? Go for the R.

And now that I’ve bashed a movie that I used to like, let me list the positive aspects of “Sixteen Candles.” The more obvious high point of the movie is Molly Ringwald as Samantha. Ringwald is so good in this movie that the movie just comes to a halt whenever she goes off-screen. Aside from a few annoying bits in which she talks to herself in a mope, she’s mostly believable. Look at her reaction when her own grandmother acknowledges her breasts—it’s priceless. Her charismatic performance is a main strength of “Sixteen Candles”—she carries the movie.

Paul Dooley, as Samantha’s father, has a chance to play the only adult character with three dimensions. It’s a scene in which he wakes up his daughter in the middle of the night, having remembered her birthday. He apologizes and the two have a little heart-to-heart. It’s a touching scene.

And like I said, writer-director John Hughes knows how insecure every teenager is; even the Geek who likes to show that he has no flaw, and even popular-guy Jake who realizes how empty his life with his attractive but mostly shallow girlfriend (Haviland Morris).

There is a good movie hidden inside “Sixteen Candles” and the solution is obvious—fast-forward through the obvious, unnecessary filler involving anything not having to do with Samantha, and you have a nicely-done coming-of-age story. Granted, the movie would only be nearly an hour long, but maybe a film’s running length shouldn’t matter, depending on the circumstances.

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