Saturday 17 June 2023

The Allnighter (1987)

Director: Tamar Simon Hoffs
Writers: M. L. Kessler and Tamar S. Hoffs
Stars: Susanna Hoffs, Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack, James Anthony Shanta, John Terlesky, Pam Grier, Phil Brock, Kaaren Lee and Michael Ontkean

Index: The First Thirty.

From The Vindicator, far more fun than it has any right to be, to The Allnighter which, well, isn’t. That said, it has a certain charm to it that got me on board by the end. It’s not as bad as its 0% on the tomatometer might suggest.

For one thing, it feels like a Hollywood film that was just shot a little freer than usual, but it was an indie film that only cost a million to make. By comparison, Predator the same year allocated three and half just for Arnie’s salary.

Then again, the star here was Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, who isn’t awful but does show why she’s known as a musician not an actor. Her character, Molly Morrison, is uncertain. How did she get through four years of college without a grand romance? What will she say in her valedictorian speech? Hoffs is uncertain about acting, so actor and character merge.

Molly rooms with Val, in the form of Dedee Pfeiffer, in the biggest role I’ve seen her have. However, this is an ensemble piece and there are a bunch of others ready to attempt to steal the movie, starting with Joan Cusack as Gina, their other roommate, who’s shooting a documentary about her last days at Pacifica.

She starts out with an observation—if you see this in twenty years, you’ll remember us this way—that works for The Allnighter too. It feels nostalgic and, as it was inspired by (not based on) co-writer/producer/director Tamar Simon Hoffs and her friends at Yale, it could be seen as a somewhat belated documentary that the real Gina never shot.

By the way, the name is not a coincidence. Tamar Simon Hoffs is Susannah Hoffs’s mum, with her daughter a easy choice for an avatar for her younger self, as well as a lower budget item for a low budget indie movie. However, it isn’t exploitation, because she doesn’t sing at any point and the soundtrack is Bangles-free.

As you might imagine for a film focused on three female roommates at college, there are a few guys providing key support. Initially, that means the two surfer dudes next door, CJ and Killer. John Terlesky’s grin is just as powerful as ever plastered on CJ, though it’s not quite a character of its own the way it was in one of my guilty pleasures, Deathstalker II. Killer is an actor that I failed to recognise, James Anthony Shanta. He debuted here too and did a strong job. I wonder why his film career didn’t take off, but he may have chosen to stay on stage.

So Hoffs has the lead role and does what’s needed but not a lot more. Dedee Pfeiffer may have been in her sister’s shadow but she has enough charisma here for two characters. It’s Cusack who has the acting chops but she’s not in this enough. Terlesky and Shanta are good foils, there to be good looking props.

After a deliberately loose start, we gradually identify the subplots and showpieces.

The event on everyone’s minds isn’t really graduation but a grand party on the beach, the Fiesta, that night, with a band and a bar and a final opportunity to check off all the things on everyone’s college bucket lists.

Mickey LeRoy, lead guitarist in the Rhinos, is in town to walk down memory lane. He used to go to Pacifica and is presumably officially in town to give a speech or some such, but he’s a lot more interested in hooking up with Connie Alvarez, like it hasn’t been forever. He wants to see the girls’ place too because it used to be his place back in his day.

While Molly wonders about true love, which is clearly going to be CJ even if he fails utterly to notice, Val is engaged to a much older dude called Brad and she’ll bail on the party to meet him for a romantic night in a hotel.

And so we go. For a while, we wonder what might ever actually happen, because it seems like everything is included for its ability to add to the atmosphere, like it’s only ever going to be a slice of life film, in keeping with its indie reality if not its Hollywood veneer. The detail is everywhere but there’s no big picture.

Gradually most of the threads connect and it all shifts from pure drama into a comedy of errors birthed at the Playa del Mar. Brad turns out to be a complete jackass who falls asleep on Val. Molly wants CJ but Mary Lou grabs him instead, so she heads over to the hotel to try for Mickey LeRoy. Gina ends up there too with Val, who temporarily bails for the party.

And while nothing was particularly right, it all goes very much wrong for the girls, which is when Pam Grier finally arrives, an hour into the movie, for her “special appearance” as Sgt. McLeesh of the local police force.

Yep, the girls are arrested. Val and Gina are fingerprinted and photographed. Notably, the former is horrified but the latter has a blast with the whole thing; she merely wishes they hadn’t confiscated her camera. They spend the night in the cells and Molly, who’s managed to escape Brad’s balcony after Connie shows up, ends up having to save the day in the morning and she needs CJ’s help to do that.

What distinguishes this brief appearance by Pam Grier from recent brief appearances is the fact that she’s having a heck of a lot of fun, so transparently that she smiles her way through her entire role. I don’t know if she was set off by the situational comedy, where she ought to be the straight guy; if the shoot was just that much fun to be on, in which case she was the only one who noticed; or if she was trying to out grin John Terlesky, which is impossible. Maybe she simply enjoyed being on the other side of the bars in what is, briefly, a women in prison film. Whatever the reason, she’s the least serious serious cop I may have ever seen.

I enjoyed this more than I expected to, not just going in from the perspective of doing my duty to this project but given the way it begins in such a loose and uninspiring fashion. Why it got better in my estimation, I don’t know, as I have no problem with indie slice of life films, but it eventually finds some sort of focus and some entertainment value along with it.

Its biggest problem isn’t that the star is the last reason to watch it. It’s that it doesn’t have a clue what it wants to be when it grows up, an almost appropriate issue. Only Killer, against the odds, is already set. Everyone else still has to figure things out and the film sympathises.

And so it’s a drama, a comedy of errors, an art film, a sitcom, a slice of life, an indie flick, a women in prison film, even the sort of story that might inspire a teen TV show. Ultimately, though, it’s about having us remember people we don’t know from two decades earlier.

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