Tuesday 3 January 2023

The Best of Times (1981)

Director: Don Mischer
Writers: Bob Arnott, Carol Hatfield & Lane Sarasohn
Stars: Crispin Glover, Jill Schoelen, Nicolas Coppola, Julie Piekarski, Kevin Cortes, Lisa Hope Ross, David Rambo, Janet Robin

Index: The First Thirty.

First up for Nicolas Cage was this failed TV pilot that I’m sure he, and the rest of the cast, would be happy to see vanished away into the black hole that contains most other failed TV pilots. It’s called The Best of Times and it was brought to the unwary people of America by Squeezably Soft Charmin. The jokes really do write themselves but I’ll try to behave.

Initially, it feels like a sitcom, with its half-hearted laughtrack and sound effects, but it’s also a sketch show and a musical. It also feels a lot longer than its sixty minute running time less commercials.

However, it’s a fascinating piece of video for bringing us crazy young versions of a number of people we know well nowadays. Cage, still going by Nicolas Coppola, is one of them, but he isn’t the only one or even the primary one. The star here is nominally Crispin Glover, who seems eager to play a normal young man, the one part that he clearly doesn’t understand how to play. It could be said that his character seems to be an alien pretending to be a human being without any understanding of what that is. He clearly hasn’t grown into himself.

This show would have us think that the best of times are those when we’re kids but soon to become adults. Crispin is a high school student living with his mum—played by Betty Glover, his actual mum—and his friends, who also go by their real first names, are likewise. But they won’t be in school for long. They’re about to graduate and theoretically grow up and this is all about that awkward moment when we’re supposed to learn who we really are.

Now, whatever you’re picturing from that is not remotely as embarrassing as this turns out to be. For everyone involved. Including us. Let me introduce you to Crispin’s friends, a cast of characters who aren’t at all likely to be friends in real life, because they represent the various stereotypes of high school.

Nicolas Coppola plays Nick, the jock. He may live on the beach where he works out all the time. He never stops moving and he’s in pretty good shape, which we see because he’s dressed only in denim shorts. He does one armed press ups, punches the air and even joins in on an ensemble musical number at a car wash doing Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, clad in denim dungarees like a surfer dude hillbilly redneck cannibal.

Kevin Cortes is Kevin, the nerd. Most think he looks like John Denver, which he does, but that doesn’t get him dates. He spends all of his time on payphones asking girls to go to the dance with him, but the only one who says yes is ten years old. He even asks the operator.

Julie Piekarski is Julie, the cheerleader and popular chick who lives for compatibility lists in teenage magazines, which is supposed to be why she’s not with Kevin.

David Rambo is David, the dork, who works as a stock boy at the local grocery store, where all these kids hang out, because the budget is not up to shooting in a mall. The store is run by Special Guest Star Jackie Mason as O’Reilly, the only adult with a role of substance, which translates to him dishing out a barrage of New York Jewish dad jokes and little else.

Lisa Hope Ross is Lisa, the fitness aficionado comic relief who eats after she runs, so she looks rather like a chunky Marcy D’Arcy.

Jill Schoelen is Jill, the glamour girl, who has quite a habit of turning any scene into what seems like an audition for a commercial.

Janet Robin is Janet, the muso, who wants to be in the band, as pitiful as it is, but they only take her on as their roadie. Yeah, that’s quite the list and I wonder how many of those names you recognise. Cage, of course, and probably Glover too. Maybe you’re aware of Julie Piekarski from her role early on in The Facts of Life.

However, Jill Schoelen would go on to be a scream queen in a succession of horror movies such as Chiller, The Stepfather and Cutting Class, Brad Pitt’s debut. David Rambo would become a playwright, scriptwriter and producer with a string of credits to his name—that’s him in the credits to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. And Janet Robin was a real guitarist, who would go to belong to excellent all-girl band Precious Metal and tour with Lindsey Buckingham and Air Supply.

So there’s no doubt the talent is here. Even Kevin Cortes and Lisa Hope Ross, who would go on to nothing else, are decent. The problem—well, problems, plural—isn’t with the talent. It’s with pretty much everything else.

For one, this is massively dated, even for a decade that lends itself to being dated. It’s not just the fashion either, though is that Crispin Glover wearing rainbow suspenders? It sure looks like it, even if it’s hard to tell on a crappy VHS rip. These kids hang out in arcades. Kevin is always on a pay phone. Lisa is thrilled to have a letter to the editor printed in the TV Guide.

For another, the tone shifts wilder than you might ever imagine. One minute, it’s all fourth wall breaking confessional, every one of these characters pouring their teenage hearts out to us like we’re a diary, even asking us questions. Then it’s a sketch show with weak sight gags like Nick the paper boy throwing a newspaper over an entire house, Lisa spraying herself in the face with a garden hose or Jackie Mason doing the robot.

Then it gets abruptly serious. Cage gets the most serious, late on when he suddenly panics about imminent war in El Salvador, to which he expects to be drafted. It actually works, as overdone as it is. It’s the one section of this entire film that’s worth keeping for an early talent reel.

Surely Cage would want to forget his advice to Kevin about picking up girls though. “That’s what turns women on,” he explains, while he flexes muscles. “I am the most beautiful man you have ever seen. My magnificent biceps drive you wild with desire.”

But hey, he got the career, and even though this plays out as if a bunch of friends at the Beverly Hills High School with connections to the industry managed to get a pilot greenlit, shot and broadcast just to shut them up.

And it is as bad as that suggests.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I enjoyed reading your review on this show, Hal -- it sounds absolutely bonkers . . . and I would love to see it!