(by Dustin Putman
It's something of a rite-of-passage, overwhelming in the moment but an inevitable part of growing up, for everyone to go through a time in their young adult life when they question what it is they want to do with their future. It's even more stressful when said person can't quite figure out the answer, or has found themselves going through the motions, playing a role at a job that they know deep down inside isn't for them. Tack onto that the added pressure of parents and society constantly reminding them of what they should be doing, and it's amazing anyone can look back with nostalgia at their early twenties. Just the same, that's exactly what we do, with college just about over and the infinite possibilities of the world spread out before us. It's this equally frightening and exciting time that is sublimely depicted and explored in "Take Me Home Tonight," an up-all-night joy of a comedy that plays, also, like an '80s movie lover's wet dream. That the film has had so much trouble on its journey to theaters, going through multiple title changes and shifting release dates, now seems utterly ridiculous in the wake of how very good—at times even great—it actually is. It's such a shame when major studios get cold feet over putting out quality products, ones that are smart, charming, candid, character-oriented, and real, in lieu of a constant bombardment of needless sequels, threadbare remakes, and soulless regurgitations of the same old thing. Does integrity even enter the equation anymore in Hollywood? With a very specific vision and a giant heart laid bare, "Take Me Home Tonight" has this key ingredient in spades. Article continues below
It's Labor Day weekend, circa 1988, and much to the chagrin of his nagging, opinionated parents, recent MIT graduate Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) has put engineering plans on hold to go work at Sherman Oaks Galleria's Suncoast Video while he figures out what he truly wants to do. When he learns that his high school crush, the gorgeous, seemingly unattainable Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), will be attending a big end-of-summer blowout hosted by former classmate Kyle Masterson (Chris Pratt), Matt hits the party with twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) and best friend Barry (Dan Fogler) in tow. Having just been fired from his car dealership job, Barry has stolen a brand-new Mercedes off the lot and vowed to let loose by any means possible. For aspiring writer Wendy, who is about to move into a condo with boyfriend Kyle, she is unsure how to tell her beau that she has applied to grad school in Cambridge, just about willing to give up her dreams and settle down. Through a series of events he can scarcely believe, Matt finds himself connecting with Tori and later accompanying her to a fancy party in Beverly Hills for a bunch of investment banker big-wigs she works with. He's led her to believe he works at Goldman Sachs, but soon finds that he needn't have lied to impress her; Tori is just as unsure and insecure about her future and the conventional expectations placed upon her as he is.
Directed by Michael Dowse and written by Jackie and Jeff Filgo (2010's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"), "Take Me Home Tonight" captures the tone, style and sincerity of a 1980s classic without the snarky, self-knowing humor of a modern film set within that decade. The fashions, hairstyles, cars, electronics, music and recreational drug use are all there, but there is no wink and nudge to any of it. Instead, it's just a story that happens to take place in 1988, and is better for it. A snapshot of a single fateful night in the lives of a group of post-college-aged pals who sense change is a'coming, the formula is a similar one to 1973's "American Graffiti," 1993's "Dazed and Confused," and 1998's "Can't Hardly Wait," and strong enough to ably join their company. The proceedings are further charged because the characters are a little older. They are not on the precipice of high school ending—that was four years ago—and so there is a greater, more intense urgency to get their act together and come to a conclusion about where they want to see themselves in five, ten, twenty years from now.
Matt had plenty of chances back in the day to ask Tori out, but he didn't have the confidence and figured she'd say no, anyway. Now, several years removed from that, he feels like he might have a shot. He doesn't make the best first decision when he runs into her at Suncoast and never reveals that he's actually working there—he tells her to take her movie she wants to buy and he'll wait and pay for it once the jackass sales clerk returns—but it does help in the moment to ingratiate himself to her. What follows between them at the party is immensely winning, their interplay hesitant and awkward at first and then gradually more comfortable and warm as Matt's nerves go away and he begins to see her as a person rather than an object or symbol of what he can't have. In return, Tori can't believe they haven't really talked before now. As when she takes him to the Beverly Hills soiree and he blows away a skeptical investor (Michael Ian Black) with his knowledge on the subject, Tori is taken with Matt's intelligence, his humor, his ability to surprise her. Practically every scene between these two characters is like the best John Hughes film John Hughes never made, from their dance together to Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," to their nighttime drive through Los Angeles as the sounds of Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" blast over the radio, to their heart-to-heart talk looking out over the glittering lights of the city where Tori admits for the first time how much she hates the life she's been leading, to their flirtatious game of Truth or Dare as they sit together on a stranger's backyard trampoline. It's pretty magical.
Watching the great cast at work is like a celebration; they look to be having a fabulous time, and this jovial feel proves infectious for the audience. Topher Grace (2010's "Predators") is the Patrick Dempsey, the John Cusack, the Eric Stoltz of the film as Matt Franklin, the bright, good-natured underdog who figures he has nothing to lose when he tries to get to know Tori. Grace is convincing and likable in the role, and the inner conflict he faces about satisfying himself and appeasing his judgmental police officer father (Michael Biehn) is instantly relatable. As Tori, Teresa Palmer is lovely in a way that we've never gotten to see before in such subpar, impersonal projects as 2010's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and 2011's "I Am Number Four." Palmer is beautiful—she even makes her indelible entrance at the party to Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes"—but she's so much more than that; she makes Tori blessedly human and complicated, a one-time prom queen who, while far from stuck-up, also acknowledges that she has grown a lot since their teen years.
Usually cast as the boisterous comic relief, Dan Fogler's (2009's "Love Happens") role as Barry is no exception. Instead of trying too hard, or being forced by the screenplay into slapstick situations that don't fit, Fogler's very funny performance comes from an honest place. Barry feels betrayed, having given up college to work at a car dealer that has just spit him out, and his mission to party his troubles away—starting with the baggie of cocaine he finds in the glove compartment of the Mercedes he steals—is always an amusing counterpoint to Matt's lower-key soul-searching. He's even involved in a dance-off, and who can resist those when they're done right and accompanied by fabulous '80s music? Anna Faris (2010's "Yogi Bear") can consistently be counted on to steal scenes and often improve lesser material, but she doesn't need to here. Faris blends right in with the ensemble as Matt's twin sister Wendy—the two of them have ideal chemistry, by the way, seeming like authentic siblings—getting laughs just from her facial expressions and also effectively navigating the more serious side of a character who fears she may have to give up her ambitions if she decides to stay with Kyle. Also turning up, Michelle Trachtenberg (2010's "Cop Out") slinks through her scenes as Ashley, a moody, sexually uninhibited partygoer who Barry takes a shine to, and Demetri Martin (2009's "Taking Woodstock") is humorously self-deprecating as wheelchair-bound old classmate Carlos.
With a sprawling soundtrack of era-specific gems, "Take Me Home Tonight" would at least be diverting just by sheer force of its song collection alone. Fortunately, it's far more than a compendium of tunes, a part-exuberant, part-wistful, all-wise look at people who all sense things will soon never be the same. While the characters are close to archetypes, they never become stereotypes. There's not, for example, a one-dimensional bully or an exaggerated, snooty past cheerleader in sight, and even a dunce like Kyle is treated with empathy. When Tori finds out that Matt has not told her the truth about his job, there is an inevitable temporary falling-out that could have been done without. That said, her reaction and misreading of Matt's purpose in pursuing her play out in a way that stays true to both parties. It also makes their reconciliation mean more. "Take Me Home Tonight" is that rare, special kind of movie that most viewers should intimately connect with, enduring and growing in popularity with time, its rabid rewatchability factor a priceless attribute that too often goes undervalued by cinephiles. It's an achievement harder than it seems. When accomplished, the experience can be miraculous.