Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Breakfast Club

36. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Dir: John Hughes


One of my friends who is several years younger than me once expressed disbelief at the level of praise he'd heard heaped on John Hughes' high school classic 'The Breakfast Club'. He couldn't understand why people loved it so much. I bet you think you know where I'm going with this. I'm going to write off my friend's opinion as ignorant and tell you exactly why he was wrong about this great film, right? Actually, wrong. Instead, I'm going to agree with my friend on many levels but also offer some embarrassingly contradictory, logically unsound justification for why I'll always love 'The Breakfast Club'.

Selecting films which have something to set them apart as special isn't as simple as looking at the whole of film as one broad spectrum. It must be broken down into genres, directors and other such managable subsections. There's no point in comparing 'The Breakfast Club' with 'Citizen Kane', for instance, because there is no comparison in terms of either quality or style. But, when examined in terms of their own specific genre, many films emerge as classics of their particular field which makes them noteworthy, flaws and all. Less frequently explored sub-genres such as the sports film, the B movie, the exploitation film and even pornography have their own acknowledged classics and it's fascinating to see why these particular films have emerged victorious when pitted against their stylistic counterparts. So is the case with 'The Breakfast Club' and its wildly popular sub-genre, the high school movie.

Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a big part in the cult surrounding these 80s high school films. Nostalgia both for the experience of school itself and for the fashions, music and movies of the era. I was only alive for 8 of the 10 years that made up that infamous decade but that was enough to take in the child-friendly, candy-coloured vulgarity and MTV in-your-face-ness of the era which we celebrate and abhor in equal measures. But empty nostalgia is not enough to make a film special. If this were the case, I would love any number of dreadful 80s teen films as much as I love 'The Breakfast Club'. That the dire likes of 'Three O'Clock High' (1987), 'The Last American Virgin' (1982) or even Hughes' own 'Sixteen Candles' (1984) and 'Weird Science' (1985) bore and annoy me is evidence that there must be at least a little something more to 'The Breakfast Club', which is held in higher regard even by those who revel undiscerningly in the 80s high school genre.

Before we get into why 'The Breakfast Club' works so well, let's tear it apart some more! Make no mistake, 'The Breakfast Club' is very silly. It uncomfortably mixes serious social concerns and astute verbal comedy with music video influenced sequences and increasingly improbable events culminating in a marijuana smoking scene in which the effects of the drug are misrepresented as energising and somehow instil in Emilio Estevez the power to shatter glass with his voice! Worse still, the message of individuality and how you should strive to be more than the label society has placed on you is completely undermined by the film's ending, which seems determined to contradict everything the film has said and reinforce the popular myths that geeks can be manipulated to do all the work and that all kooky outsider girls need is a bit of a makeover and they can live the dream of dating jocks. I've attempted to justify this ending to myself by pretending that Hughes purposefully included these contradictions in order to make a comment on the similarities between teenagers' own hypocritical viewpoints on self-image and those of their adult counterpoints. But no, he didn't. And in my book that makes 'The Breakfast Club' a vapid, loathsome and dangerous piece of work.

And I love it.

I can't help it. For all its flaws and reprehensible conclusions, 'The Breakfast Club' stands alongside Amy Heckerling's 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' (1982), Michael Lehmann's 'Heathers' (1988) and Cameron Crowe's 'Say Anything' (1989) as one of the best high school movies of the 80s. John Hughes was responsible for many of the most beloved films of this genre but only 'Pretty in Pink' (1986) (penned by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch) comes anywhere close to being as good. Even the much-lauded 'Ferris Beuller's Day Off' (1986) falls well short. What sets 'The Breakfast Club' apart is the limitations that Hughes imposes on his own writing. The average high school film involves a lot of fleeting appearances by boldly drawn character types; nerds, jocks, weirdoes, princesses, bullies. Hughes' screenplay takes just one of each of these stock players and sets about trying to understand what makes each of them the way they are, rather than just using them for a cheap laugh. He then imposes even more rigid limitations on himself by confining these characters largely to a single location; the school library, where they are to endure the frustrations and embarrassments of a Saturday detention alongside peers whose company they would never choose themselves.

This reduction of narrative scope discounts the possibility of including such well-worn genre staples as the high school prom and focuses the script sharply on these five characters. The only other characters, aside from a fleeting glimpse of some parents at the beginning of the film, are Paul Gleason's smarmy, exaggeratedly villainous Principal Vernon and janitor Carl Reed, a lovely little characterisation by John Kapelos. A constant presence for the film's first half, Principal Vernon conveniently disappears in the latter part of the movie, allowing the detention to degenerate into first a party and then a therapy session, both of which are fuelled by the catalyst of cannabis.

The theme of personal identity is constantly hanging over the film as the kids are told they must write an essay about who they think they are by the end of the day. The film opens and closes with two different versions of this final essay, read in voiceover by Anthony Michael Hall's nerd character, highlighting first the suffocating feeling of being perceived as a stereotype and, finally, the liberating experience of accepting that you've made the choice to be that same stereotype. The film's major weakness is the concessions it makes to expected Hollywood conventions, so that the events that play out immediately before this final reading of the essay completely undermine the point for the sake of tacking on some unnecessary romances. If Ally Sheedy's character really accepted and loved herself for who she was, would she allow Molly Ringwald's character to make her over to look like the cool kids? And what kind of message do we take away from Emilio Estevez's abrupt attraction to her after this make over, having shown no signs of attraction previously? It doesn't matter what's on the inside, as long as what's on the outside looks sexy? In all honesty, this shallow behaviour is far more true to life than an idealised ending but Hughes presents it as a good thing. We're supposed to be uplifted by this eleventh hour confirmation that the adult viewpoint of these kids is probably correct.

The inevitable slide towards the compromised conclusion means that 'The Breakfast Club' is infinitely superior in its brilliant first half, during which it is played mainly for laughs. Particularly entertaining is the on-going war between wisecracking John Bender (Judd Nelson) and bullying Principal Richard "Dick" Vernon, complete with hilarious interjections from Brian Johnson, the geek ("Could you describe the ruckus, sir?" is my favourite line of the film!). These early scenes focus on the monotony of confinement, the excruciating experience of being forced to share the company of people you don't know or like and the moment when Bender's bullying crosses the line to trigger the extended psychoanalysis that constitues the second half of the film.

The casting of 'The Breakfast Club' is uneven, with Molly Ringwald proving utterly unsuited to playing the popular rich girl and Emilio Estevez giving a robotically emotionless performance as the jock. Ally Sheedy makes a decent stab at the quirky girl but her oddball performance doesn't make this awkwardly written character any easier to pin down. Of the five leads, it is left up to Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson to shine and fortunately Hughes' script favours these characters the most. Hall made his name playing nerds in John Hughes films and this is his defining performance. He is sweet and nervous but also very funny and gets some of the best lines of the film as he struggles with being significantly more intelligent but less cool than his classmates (ironically, Hall would go on to play the jock five years later in Tim Burton's 'Edward Scissorhands' (1990)). But it is Nelson who gives the powerhouse performance, the defining turn of his career and of the film. One of the main reasons the first half of 'The Breakfast Club' is so strong is that Nelson's character gets to hold the floor for the majority of the time, singling out each of the other characters for petty verbal attacks which ultimately turn out to be surprisingly insightful. Nelson is rivetingly charismatic even at his most detestable, ensuring that the audience immediately sides with him against the Principal and forgives him his tormenting of the other kids.

Part of the fun of 'The Breakfast Club' is discovering the individual reasons each of the characters came to be in detention and the motivation behind their crimes. Ultimately, there isn't a great deal of depth to these revelations and too much is simplistically blamed on adult influences but Hughes is aiming to create something accessible to mainstream audiences even as it strives to further the possibilities of the genre and in this respect he often succeeds admirably. The self-conciously cool music videos that appear in between narrative stretches are admittedly silly but they help keep 'The Breakfast Club' fun when it could have been bone-dry and they also situate the film squarely in its era, making it a more fascinating social document and defusing the dangerousness of its fumbled message by ensuring modern audiences don't take it at all seriously. In fact, 'The Breakfast Club' is a film that has improved with age for the very reason that age has also made it more ridiculous. For this reason, it is also a film that will eventually lose its audience as 80s nostalgia dies out but, for people of a certain age, it will always hold an endearing significance.

From its part-superb, part-idiotic script to its semi-serious, semi-ludicrous tone and its finale in which what we see and what we hear bear no moralistic resemblance to each other whatsoever, 'The Breakfast Club' lives and dies by its own narrative oppositions. But I have at least three friends who, as the credits roll to the strains of Simple Minds' 'Don't You (Forget About Me)', want nothing more than to start watching it all over again. My friend was right; 'The Breakfast Club' is shit. I was right; it's also great. This contradictory statement seems like an apt synopsis for a film so riddled with contradictions.

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