Originally released 15 April 1988
Written by A. Scott Frank (screenplay) and A. Scott Frank & Dan Vining (story)
Directed by Martha Coolidge
Starring Arliss Howard, Suzy Amis, & Seymour Cassel
My rating: ★★★ stars
Police officer Nick Dunbar is going back to school.
When the brother of youthful-looking police officer Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard) is arrested for the murder of his history teacher, Nick goes undercover in high school to ferret out the guilty party. In three days, he manages to solve the crime, become the most popular kid in school, and win the heart of his English teacher.
In story, Plain Clothes shares a lot with Hiding Out (1987), released the year before. But, in tone, the films vary greatly. Hiding Out is a fun, straightforward comedy-thriller. But Plain Clothes is irreverent and quirky (listen for the PA announcements that run behind various scenes). Tonally, it resembles director Martha Coolidge’s previous film Real Genius (1985). However, it falls behind that film in volume (in multiple senses of the word) laughs. Nonetheless, the screenplay, while not as quotable, is solid and funny enough.
The whodunit aspect of the film is well done. Writer Scott Frank (who wrote one of my favorite mystery films, Dead Again (1991)) doesn’t treat the mystery as an unimportant excuse for a teen comedy. It’s not tossed in as an afterthought. The mystery has suspects and clues—including the victim’s enigmatic last words, “Easy grader.” The resolution—the who and why of the crime—is both surprising and well-supported by the story.
Arliss Howard (True Blood, Men Don’t Leave, I Know My First Name Is Steven) is a criminally underused actor. Here, he begins the film with a weariness suggesting that Nick is too jaded for his young years and has given up on the prospect of having anything good in his life. He approaches situations with deadpan humor. But, during the film, the viewers can see Nick perk up as he becomes engaged in something for the first time in a long time. His humor takes on a different dimension, as his quips become charming attempts at wit and not a defense mechanism. Also, Nick’s recitation of E. E. Cummings’s “she being Brand/ -new” demonstrates that poetry reading doesn’t have to be dry and serious. If there’s a problem with Howard, it’s his age. Nick is supposed to look young for a guy in his early twenties. Howard may look young for his age, but, at 33, he hardly looks like someone in his early twenties, let alone 17.
Suzy Amis, as English teacher Miss Torrence (a name which sounds like a southern California beauty pageant contestant—I know it’s spelled differently), has the difficult job of playing a character whose presence is obligatory. Miss Torrence has no other purpose in the story than to be the required love interest for the hero. And, yet, the film would be lesser without her. She gives Howard someone to play off of.
The film features a slew of recognizable faces including Seymour Cassel, Diane Ladd, Abe Vigoda, Larry Pine, George Wendt, Reginald VelJohnson, Harry Shearer, and Robert Stack (to name a few), as if Coolidge wanted her audience members to think “I’ve seen that guy before” every other minute. All seem to be having fun with their roles.
That’s what the movie is—a lot of fun. It has no pretensions to be more than that. I take the movie out and watch it every summer, and it stays fresh. It’s a summer kind of movie.