Looking At ‘The Breakfast Club’ From The Other Side

01.12.18 6 days ago 14 Comments

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I can tell you a lot about The Breakfast Club. That it was originally called Detention. That it was supposed to be John Hughes’ first film as a director, but a script he wrote after it, Sixteen Candles, made it to the screen first. That Sixteen Candles began a relationship with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall that led to them appearing in The Breakfast Club. That Shermer, the fictional setting of the Hughes films, is based on the Chicago suburb of Northbrook where Hughes, a Michigan native, spent his teen years. That Universal feared it would flop upon its February 1985 release. That it did not flop, instead becoming so beloved that it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2016 and recently received a home video re-release as part of the Criterion Collection. There’s no official film canon, but these sorts of honors come close. Not that The Breakfast Club needed them to seem canonical. Ask anyone for the definitive teen movie of the 1980s and chances are this will be the first answer you get.

Here’s a question I couldn’t really answer until revisiting the film again via that new Blu-ray: Do I even like The Breakfast Club?

That shouldn’t be a tough one. But The Breakfast Club is a movie I’ve been hot and cold on over the years, mostly cold. That happens with movies sometimes. What we like as kids can look embarrassing now. And what we once dismissed can start to look profound. But with The Breakfast Club I’ve always vacillated between cheerless indifference and a distant admiration.

As a Gen X-er, I’m not even sure this is allowed. It’s like everyone held an election to determine what my generation’s defining teen movie would be and I didn’t get a vote. I’ve never hated The Breakfast Club and I got why others like it. It just never got to me the way it apparently got to everyone else my age (and, at this point, every succeeding generation that’s embraced it). And I’ve never bought the opinions that have seemingly hardened into accepted fact: that this was a movie about shattering stereotypes instead of perpetuating them, that it’s the best example of Hughes’ uncanny empathy for teens, that it captured how ‘80s kids really felt and talked.

Honestly, I still don’t buy them. This time around, I found myself repeatedly distracted by Judd Nelson’s performance as John Bender, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks rebel. Nelson was 24 while shooting the film (and was still claiming to be 24 upon its release nearly a year later in a Today show interview included on the disc), and he looks appreciably older than his co-stars. (Only Ringwald and Hall were teens while making the film, but Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy could pass.) He gives a big, bellowing performance in the film’s most overwritten part, one filled with profane soliloquies and florid insults. (Did Hughes really write the way teens talk or did it just come to seem that way when phrases like “slip her the hot beef injection” and, years before Bart Simpson, “eat my shorts” started echoing through middle schools after the film’s release?) Bender dominates much of the film, and there’s a lot of visible effort in Nelson’s work and Hughes’ dialogue. He’s trying way too hard at playing someone who doesn’t try at all.

It’s also a film filled with mixed messages. Allison, the weirdo played by Ally Sheedy, gets a makeover and wins the heart of Andrew (Estevez), a jock who’d previously never given her a second look. (She might be more of an individual in black, the film seems to suggest, but isn’t she pretty in pink?) Bender pairs off with rich girl Claire (Ringwald) after haranguing her with insults and abuse for much of the movie. Brian, the suicidal brain played by Hall, doesn’t seem that much better off than when the film began. His reward for Saturday detention: getting to do everyone else’s homework by writing the “Who You Think You Are” essay for the whole group. (Thanks, newfound chums.) “We found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” the essay goes. But did they? Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” swells on the soundtrack to drive the point home, and it feels right. But ultimately The Breakfast Club does a much better job of saying this than showing it.

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The Breakfast Club may or may not be Hughes’ best film. (I’m partial to Pretty in Pink, which he scripted and produced but handed off to Howard Deutch to direct.) But it’s as good example as any of Hughes’ ability to create films’ whose underlying resonance helps squelch their flaws.

Pretty in Pink may have a bummer of an ending — Andie and Duckie obviously belong together — but it’s still got those scenes between Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton and it’s still “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and the rest of that soundtrack. In fact, from Sixteen Candles through She’s Having a Baby (with which Hughes failed to sub in early adulthood for teen life) they’ve all got soundtracks that helped introduce angsty ‘80s teens to the last ripples of British New Wave that became synonymous with growing up in the Reagan era. An avid music fan throughout his life, Hughes understood how easily the right song could get through to the heart of the matter.

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