Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Maxwell Caulfield, Adrian Zmed, and Lorna Luft
My rating: ★★ stars
Not as bad as its reputation would suggest.
Let’s clear up two misconceptions right off the bat. Many people believe that, because Grease 2 killed the Grease franchise, that it was a huge bomb. Not so. First of all, the film made money. Not a lot of money. Not enough to warrant more movies. But it was not a money-loser. Secondly, and more importantly from the perspective of this review, Grease 2 is not that bad. It’s not a great movie, nor is it a good one, but it’s not awful. Separated from the expectations mounted by the first film and saddled with a terrible reputation, Grease 2 actually comes off as surprisingly acceptable.
Picking up two years after the end of the first movie (and already at a disadvantage because there’s far less nostalgia for the early 1960s vs. the late 1950s), Grease 2 tells the story of British exchange student Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield) attempting to fit in at Rydell High and win the heart of Pink Lady leader Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer). To do so, he creates a second persona, that of the goggled “cool rider,” who sweeps her off her feet.
The story and script of Grease 2 are not the problems. Actually, the script shows good character development and a strong sense of theme. The movie has feminist undercurrents, as Stephanie begins the movie declaring that she’s no man’s “property” or “trophy.” Much of the conflict in the movie stems from her inability to reconcile that desire with her romantic fantasies; she believes she wants a significant other like the guys she knows, the T-birds, the ones who treat their female companions as property. She initially doesn’t value Michael’s more intellectual and easygoing personality. She doesn’t appreciate that he is a desirable rarity, a Hot Nerd, an elusive species whose existence in reality has been postulated, but never conclusively proven. (Should you spot a Hot Nerd, tag him so that scientists may study his behavior and migratory patterns.)
The subplot of Stephanie’s ex, Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed) romancing another Pink Lady, Paulette Rebchuck (Lorna Luft), also demonstrates a hint of feminism. Johnny spends much of the movie taking Paulette for granted and treating her like property. Finally, Paulette grows a spine and stands up to him, leading him to recognize her worth. Some viewers may wish that Paulette had gone off and left Johnny behind, but the film shows relentless dedication to making sure all of the characters are paired off at the end. One minor script problem is that some of the pairings make little sense, for example, Rhonda (Alison Price) and Goose (Christopher McDonald), and Davey (Leif Green) and Dolores (Pamela Segall). The only significant interaction Rhonda and Goose have is Goose teasing Rhonda about her nose; then, they’re suddenly a couple. The only reason Davey and Dolores are put together seems to be that they’re both short.
Unlike the first film, which showed two characters who had to transform themselves completely to get together, Grease 2 shows two characters coming together while remaining essentially themselves. On the surface, the makeover plot, with Michael adopting a fake identity might seem to contradict what I just said. However, the script is subtler than that. Michael does transform himself, but it’s not the transformation that wins her over. A long scene at the end of the second act shows the key bonding moment between the two, involving Michael, as himself, and Stephanie discussing Shakespeare. She welcomes his respect of her intelligence. From that point on, the cool rider persona is a distraction that gets in the way of Stephanie recognizing her feelings for Michael.
If the script has one problem, it’s that it doesn’t have enough story to cover a whole school year in time. At most, the story seems to cover a couple of months.
As interesting as the story is, the movie can’t overcome the horrific direction by Patricia Birch, who was the choreographer on the first film. Her use of the camera is static and awkward. The movie looks sloppy and cheap. And, when given a performer of the caliber of Pfeiffer, Birch directs her to be whiny and shrill.
Pfeiffer certainly has star quality in the film, but her performance doesn’t endear the character to the audience. Caulfield is stronger but struggles with the singing requirements. The stand-out performance comes from Zmed. I didn’t recognize its quality when I was younger because Johnny is such a jerk as a character, but Zmed has the strongest voice and the most charismatic presence.
Story, direction, and performances aside, the most important aspect of any musical is the music. Here, the songs are uneven. They range from the enjoyable (“Back to School Again,” “Cool Rider”) to the mildly amusing (“Score Tonight,” “Reproduction”) to the embarrassing (“Do It for Our Country,” “Love with Turn Back the Hands of Time”) to the ear-splittingly painful (“Charades”). It even features a song (“Brad”)* that the characters acknowledge is terrible, forgetting that including a deliberately bad song means inflicting it on the audience. Grease had some weak songs—“Sandy” comes to mind—but Grease 2 lacks any really strong songs to offset the weak ones. There is no “Greased Lightning” or “Summer Nights” or “Hopelessly Devoted to You” or “You’re the One That I Want.”
Ultimately, Grease 2 has more engaging characters and a more thoughtful story than the first movie, but it will never be as enjoyable. It lacks the quality of execution and music that made Grease a classic. I can’t in good conscience recommend this movie, but revisiting it reminded me that the story is worthwhile. I just had to remember to press “Mute” when some of the songs began.
*A BIT OF TRIVIA: Brad was played by Matt Lattanzi, the significant other and future (now former) husband of Grease star Olivia Newton-John.
STUFF THAT BOTHERS ONLY ME: In one of the bowling alley scenes, Ruby & the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come” can be heard in the background. That song was released in December 1962, but the scene takes place in the autumn of 1961.