Originally released November 6, 1987
Written by Joe Menosky & Jeff Rothberg
Directed by Bob Giraldi
Starring Jon Cryer, Annabeth Gish, and Keith Coogan
My rating: ★★★ stars
Entertaining and thoughtful sleeper.
Hiding Out is one of those movies that I always stop and watch while channel-surfing. It’s continually entertaining, with likable characters, a great development arc for the protagonist, and engaging performances. The premise is ludicrous—a stockbroker hides from a mob enforcer by pretending to be a high school student—but the quality execution of that premise rewards the suspension of disbelief. What works about the premise is the way it fulfills the character arc—an adult, facing a crossroads in his life, which is less fulfilling than he realizes, gets a chance to start his adult life over by returning to high school and coming of age all over again.
The circumstances that lead stockbroker Andrew Morenski (Jon Cryer) to disguise himself as a high school student named Maxwell Hauser are dealt with efficiently by the script. The exposition moves by quickly, establishing character, setting, situation, and tone in brief, trenchant scenes.
Once Andrew/Max is established in the school, the film avoids goofy or labored moments of fish-out-of-water humor. Max’s immersion in high school, instead of providing an excuse for an adult to act as like an adolescent, brings out the maturity in the other students. When Max enters a debate with history teacher/Nixon apologist Mrs. Billings (Nancy Fish), the encounter leads Max into a discussion of history with his fellow students. When Max finds himself unwittingly thrust into a student council election, the other candidate displays a heretofore unrealized grace and humility. And, through contact with Max and his serious problems, Max’s adolescent cousin Patrick (Keith Coogan) learns to be a little less self-absorbed.
The key relationship in the film occurs between Max and winsome high school girl Ryan (Annabeth Gish). The more innocent time of the film’s production makes this relationship between an adult and a teenager less troublesome than we would find it now. Wisely, the film shows Max and Ryan connecting on an intellectual and emotional level, rather than a physical one. Max even attempts to avoid kissing Ryan, leading her practically to attack him to engage in one of filmdom’s most chaste kisses. That the filmmakers focus on the engagement of their minds gives the impression that their connection is more deeply intimate than typical high school romances.
Revisiting this 1980s teen classic reminds us that Jon Cryer is more versatile than his one-note character on Two and Half Men suggests. He proves winning, charismatic, witty, and pensive–qualities that infuse his early performances but that haven’t been used much in his later career. Gish is similarly charming, making Ryan an interesting partner for Max, not just a pretty love interest. Coogan’s performance, however, seems out of tune with the rest of the film. His goofiness comes off as cartoonish, rather than genuine. Similarly, Fish’s teacher character is a caricature of a battle-axe, rather than a reflection of any realistic teacher.
The biggest problem with the film is the middle montage of Max in the high school. The sequence is out of character and shows too blatantly the MTV aesthetic, which is out of place in a film with a much more somber tone. Unlike most in teen films, which seem to take place in the sunniest of seasons, the weather in Hiding Out is perpetually overcast, lending the film a sense of intriguing graveness and melancholy.
True nitpickers will notice a time conundrum. While the film takes place during the fall (including a student election), one scene shows Ryan’s father working on his taxes. A quick line about filing after a six-month extension could have fixed the problem, but the issue is so minor that the filmmakers either didn’t realize it or figured no one would care.
The next year saw the release of a film with a similar premise, Plain Clothes, which provides a vastly different tonal and thematic take on the idea of an adult returning to high school. While comparisons between the films are inevitable, both succeed in their own way. However, Hiding Out is the more dramatic and thoughtful of the two—reflecting a time when teen movies had the courage to be introspective.