Starring Judd Nelson, Jonna Lee, Gordon Jump, and Andrew Dice Clay (as Andrew Clay)
My rating: 1/2 star
A couple of minor laughs can’t make this unpleasant teen comedy watchable.
Spoiled rich young adult (he’s been in high school for seven years) Palmer Woodrow (Dana Olsen) pays poor and streetwise Eddie Keaton (Judd Nelson) to attend prep school for him. Eddie seizes on the opportunity in order to avoid his bookie Dice (Andrew Clay), whom he owes thousands of dollars. Once at the school, Eddie must learn to fit in with the preppies if he’s going to pull off the charade, but his irreverent attitude wins over the school.
Eddie also wins over the pretty descendent of the school’s founder, Tracey Hoover (Jonna Lee), who finds him to be a welcome change from the preppies she knows and has dated. Typically, in stories where the wealthy good girl falls for the working class rebel, the female is looking for vicarious transgression, a way to break free from the stultifying, repressed world she lives in. This film is no different. For Tracey, Eddie represents freedom.
However, the romance doesn’t work here. When this formula succeeds, it’s because the girl finds a core of authenticity, sincerity, and tenderness in the boy, qualities that are absent from her world. Eddie, however, embodies the antithesis of all those qualities. He’s an abrasive, hypocritical mountebank. Like the protagonists in The Heavenly Kid and Can’t Buy Me Love, Eddie gets seduced by his popularity and starts behaving like the jerks that he initially opposed. Eventually, he realizes the error of his ways and returns to being an irreverent fun-loving guy, but he’s still coarse and unreliable.
As Eddie, Judd Nelson gives an irritating, unlikeable, mannered performance. His crude affectations—the halting speech, the nostril flaring, the air of ridiculous smugness—here grate on the audience because the script leaves Eddie utterly superficial as a character. There’s no depth beneath Nelson’s twitching mannerisms, as there is in his The Breakfast Club character the following year.
The script gives us no background at all for Eddie. We don’t know his age—is he a young adult like Palmer or a teenager? We don’t know anything about his family or background other than that he lives in his car and owes money to a bookie. We don’t know his hopes, dreams, or plans for the future. His stated goal in the film, to get the diploma to get the pay-out for the bookie, remains his only goal. Usually, protagonists have an acknowledged want and a whole set of unacknowledged needs that exist on the subtextual level of the movie. Eddie doesn’t have those. He wants the pay-out. That’s it.
The script could easily have given Eddie an underlying desire to be part of a higher social echelon. All the elements needed to create that obvious character drive are there: his disdain of the upper class students, which could mask envy; his falling into the behavior of the upper class, which could result from a desire for that lifestyle; and his courtship of Tracey, which could represent a desire to climb the social ladder. They could do these things, but they don’t. He simply disdains the upper class students because they’re sleazebags (although, I would argue, not as sleazy as Eddie is). He falls into the behavior of the upper class, not because he desires the lifestyle but because he simply adopts a “when in Rome” attitude—he’s supposed to fit in with upper class snobs, so he becomes one—he’s not driven by any underlying personal need. He courts Tracey because she’s the prettiest girl around; actually, she the only girl around—it’s an all-boys school. She’s pretty, and she’s there. That’s enough for Eddie.
Other young females appear in the film when Dice brings in a passel of hookers to party at the school. The party scene exists merely to get Eddie in trouble with the administration and to allow the film to meet the necessary naked breast quota for an early 1980s teen comedy. There’s no logical reason why Dice would insist on having a party with prostitutes at the school.
The film looks cheap even though it was filmed at the beautiful campus of Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). Somehow it manages to make the grand, gothic edifices look grungy—I suspect that this effect was unintentional even though the school in the film is supposed to be struggling financially. Furthermore, due to poor lighting, every day in the film looks like the most overcast day of the year. Ugly, gray scenery just doesn’t fit the intended tone of the film. The sun should be shining in this light comedy world.
As a comedy, the film lacks any real laughs; no gag generates anything more than a half-hearted chuckle. A lot of the humor depends on making fun of preppie culture, which isn’t part of the zeitgeist anymore, making the film unfortunately time-bound.
Making the Grade doesn’t even make the grade as an innocuous time-waster. The humor is unfunny. The main character is unlikeable. And the film as a whole is unpleasant.