It is a rarity to find a film that so obviously and intelligently speaks to the American teenager; rarer still to discover a director in his thirties capable of reconnecting with the anxieties of his own youth while being astutely able to relate them to a younger generation; but John Hughes Sixteen Candles (1984) did just that and more. Indeed, viewing Sixteen Candles today one is struck by two diametrically opposed observations. First; that the clothes, hairstyles, etc. have aged – badly – in a quaint sort of ‘Oh gosh, I can’t believe we used to look like that’ jejune social commentary, and second, and hitherto the point, that despite the superficial retro-feel of the piece, Hughes’ comments about teenage angst and infatuation remain as poignant, endearing and socially relevant as ever.
Reportedly, John Hughes was inspired by a headshot of 15 year old Molly Ringwald and fashioned the entire screenplay in one weekend to suit her strengths. Undeniably, the standout in the film remains Ringwald as the beloved wallflower whose lack of conventional prettiness, coupled with the actress’ own sincerity, meld into a seamless performance of life imitating art and vice versa. The rest of the cast, particularly Anthony Michael Hall, all lend solid support, but really do take a backseat to Ringwald’s star making showcase, and in every way she rises to our level of expectation. Indeed, Ringwald would become an overnight superstar with the debut of this film, as well as a creative muse for Hughes who cast her again in The Breakfast Club, then again in Pretty in Pink – arguably, the three movies that the Hughes and Ringwald’s fame and legacy will forever be associated.
Shot mostly in and around Chicago’s North Shore, Sixteen Candles effectively matured and morphed the 70s teen comedy from a bawdy sex farce into a more introspective and heartfelt excursion. The screenplay by Hughes wastes no time setting up the premise for this tenderly sensitive, occasionally raucous and downright hilarious romantic comedy. High school sophomore Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) awakens with renewed hope and giddy excitement only to discover that the rest of her family has entirely forgotten her sweet sixteen.
Understandable perhaps, considering that mom, Brenda (Carlin Glynn) and dad, Jim (Paul Dooley) are in frenzied preparation for their older daughter, Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) pending nuptials. Amidst the pre-wedding chaos of putting up both sets of grandparents; Howard (Edward Andrews) and Dorothy (Billie Bird) and Fred (Max Schowalter) and Helen (Carole Cook), the Bakers must also contend with Howard and Dorothy’s foreign exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe); predisposed to over indulgences when soaking up the American way of life.
Samantha pretends not to be unnerved by her family’s forgetfulness. But her day at school doesn’t get much better, especially when, in responding to a homemade ‘sex quiz’, she inadvertently confesses a secret fantasy crush on Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling); easily the handsomest and most popular boy at school, and the fact that she is a virgin saving herself for him to Jake, who, much to Sam’s chagrin, finds this revelation quite charming. Jake’s current girlfriend is Caroline Mulford (Havilland Morris); a superficial, flaxen-haired airhead who prefers to party and mess around than take Jake or life in general seriously.
Howard and Dorothy encourage Samantha to take Dong to the high school dance. Reluctantly, Sam agrees, then is amazed when ‘the Donger’ quickly becomes involved with Marlene (Deborah Pollack), a mannish social outcast whose nickname is ‘Lumberjack’. In the meantime, resident geek, Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) has bet his geeky friends, Bryce (John Cusack) and Cliff (Darren Harris) that he can bed Samantha, or at the very least, get her panties. With his reputation on the line, Ted intercepts Samantha before she can make a play for Jake, then sincerely comforts her inside the high school’s car repair shop after it looks as though she hasn’t a hope in hell of landing Jake for herself. Ted’s empathy is genuine and to help him save face Samantha loans her panties to show to his friends.
Ted, Bryce and Cliff crash a house party gone laughably awry. Jake barricades himself in his bedroom and finally gets up the nerve to call Samantha’s house. Unfortunately, Helen answers the phone too late, hearing a deflated Jake say ‘Eat me’ before hanging up. Meanwhile Dong and Marlene partake in the wild party, trashing an upstairs workout room while attempting to make out on a stationary bike.
After the deluge, Jake decides he’s had quite enough of Caroline and her fair-weather friends. He discovers Ted trapped under a glass top coffee table covered in empty beer cans, cigarette butts and other party paraphernalia. Through a genuine heart to heart the most popular guy in school and the social outcast come to an understanding with Jake generously offering Ted the opportunity to take a very drunken Caroline home in his father’s Rolls Royce. Jake’s plan is to use the moment of ‘finding’ Caroline and Ted together to break up with her and pursue Samantha. Instead, he discovers that Caroline has fallen for Ted and doesn’t mind leaving him.
On the day of Ginny’s wedding, the bride-to-be takes too many muscle relaxants and becomes a stuttering buffoon during her own ceremony. Afterward, Samantha finds Jake waiting for her across the street from the church. He tells her he would like to see her when she has time and Samantha forgoes the bridal reception to go with Jake who has since cleaned up his parent’s house and bought her a cake for her sixteenth birthday.
Sixteen Candles is an unforgettable teen comedy; disarmingly silly and, at times, affecting yet joyful. Hughes was heavily criticized for the character of Long Duk Dong; perceived by some to be an incendiary racist take on Asian culture. The point is moot, mostly because Gedde Watanabe manages to find something genuinely sympathetic in his over-the-top comedic lampoon. He’s obviously having a rousing good time mocking his own heritage and his effervescence takes the rest of us along for the ride, in the same way that stand-up comedian Russell Peters amuses us all with his slights on East Indian cultural morays.
Michael Schoeffling makes for a mostly wooden leading man, his saving grace being his killer looks; part James Dean/part Luke Perry, but with an ever so slight hint of understated class that’s all his own. While Molly Ringwald’s performance is undeniably the most winsome and engaging, Anthony Michael Hall’s remains the most complex. On the surface he plays it strictly for laughs, going all out in his exceptional awkwardness. But every now and then Hall also offers up a kernel of truth, one masking a greater insecurity; that all his grandiose posturing is just an act of desperation from a very sad and lonely guy.
Director Hughes keeps the pace taut. He makes his points about teen angst and inner conflict primarily through character development rather than plot, allowing the misshapenness of each character’s inner self to be expressed through words rather than actions. These frank talks with one another and monologue addresses to themselves when no one else (except the camera) is looking reveal far more than any entangled plot point. In this regard, Sixteen Candles plays more like a bit of stagecraft than film, its’ shifting locations unimportant to our appreciation. In the final analysis, Sixteen Candles is probably John Hughes’ second best film after The Breakfast Club, beautifully crafted to elicit the necessary laugh while getting to the emotional tenderloin of his pubescent subjects.
Universal’s new Blu-ray is right on the money. The 1080p image really delivers the goods with bold colours and solid, appropriately 80s dated film grain. The image is darker, as it should be, but contrast is perfectly realized. There are very minor and infrequent hints of image sharpening and a few edge enhancement issues that do not distract but are noticeable; overall, a very fine job indeed and one surely not to disappoint. The DTS audio is mostly frontal, showing remarkable restraint on Universal’s part not to experiment with some faux stereo-ization. The pop soundtrack does break out of this 2.0 mix, but never sounds unnatural or obtrusive.
Extras include a 38min. retrospective divided into 10 parts that basically has some contemporaries like Diablo Cody waxing, inarticulately, about how much they enjoyed the film and what sort of impact it had on them. Personally, I would have preferred a reunion of the original cast and some vintage excerpts from the late John Hughes, but there it is.
Universal also tacks on a lopsidedly produced homage to the 1980s, completely ignoring such cultural touchstones from the studio as The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, On Golden Pond, Tender Mercies, Somewhere In Time, Six Weeks, Mask, An American Tail, The Secret of My Success, Cry Freedom, and Always, while giving us mere snippets from Coal Miner’s Daughter, Scarface, and, Out of Africa.
We also get the oft regurgitated 100 Year: Unforgettable Characters featurette. I have to say, the biggest complaint I’ve had with Universal’s 100th Anniversary blu-rays is their lack of commitment to giving us extras worthy of the films or at least remastering the solid extras some discs have (dating all the way back to their signature laserdisc series). Audio commentaries would have been a nice start and docs that do more than superficially gloss over the studio’s rich cultural heritage. But I cannot fault Universal on the visual presentation of this film or most others in their 100th anniversary collection for that matter. This is another fine effort, and a no brainer upgrade for those who already own the lackluster DVD. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)