Plain Clothes (1988) — Laid back to the point of a coma

“Easy grader.”

Kyle’s rating: There are more popular “guy goes back to high school” movies, I think. But this is the only one I would die to own on DVD!

Kyle’s review: Yep, there are a ton of “guy/girl goes back to high school because _____ and has a blast!” movies. Some have Jon Cryer, others have Drew Barrymore.

The difference is that in the 1980’s the whole concept was a dream come true, I suppose, whereas in the decades since it’s more of a self-aware joke because we all know how awful high school is if you’re aren’t an attractive jock or an attractive cheerleader (or cheerleader-looking girl). It’s hard for me to understand all that, as I had an absolute blast in high school and still get a kick out of people being surprised I was prom royalty and somewhat popular. But thinking back to all the losers and insecure people that my friends and I bullied, I can certainly understand how a lot of people really hate their high school years.

No, just kidding! About the bullying part. Mostly. My high school years were really laidback; we never hit or pushed or anything. We just lacerated with quick wit and situation-appropriate puns. Which is just like the super-excellent Plain Clothes. It’s a comedy but it requires a lot of attention and a healthy dark side to your sense of humor. After all, it’s a murder mystery about a dead teacher that functions as a romantic comedy, a fish-out-of-water tale, and a quirky take on the downfall of the American academic system and consequently hints at the eventual downfall of the entire world.

Yet it’s totally funny and totally rooted in the 1980s! And occasionally it’s on cable, so you should watch it, or better yet tape it and watch it again and again. It’s that rewarding on repeat viewings. And it’s got Norm!

See, just as Fletch made me want to be an investigative reporter, Plain Clothes made me want to have a brother and to be a cop that could go undercover to prove his innocence. Naturally, Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard in his greatest role with hair!) is on suspension from the force when he poses as a high school student to investigate the murder of a teacher that his brother is in jail for, otherwise it wouldn’t be an ’80s lone wolf comedy.

Really, the plot is pretty simple, although it’s also very complex. That is, the set-up is simple, but the execution is quite unique and the structure of the mystery is refreshingly intricate. Even better, the progress Nick makes from weird transfer pre-goth student (that’s how some of them dressed back then, children of the ’90s!) to popular laidback kid with cool hat is believable. If anyone had pulled that stunt with our principal, he probably would have been king of the school, too! The only thing you’ll doubt is the claim that there are like a billion uses for bowling pins. As if!

I don’t want to give too much away, because every time I watch Plain Clothes I enjoy how different it is from other movies of its kind. I like that Nick hated high school the first time around but doesn’t keep reminding the audience of it. The entire film is like that: It assumes that you’ve been paying attention all along so it’s not going to pound any info into you to the point of boredom.

I like that Suzy Amis is believably hot as a young teacher (hmm, young cop, young teacher, what will happen?), I like that George Wendt is equally funny and sweaty as a would-be psychologist who gets stuck as the shop teacher, I like that Diane Ladd plays with the old emotions and it’s hard to tell just which side she’s on. And Seymour Cassel is good in anything (see: Rushmore); as Nick’s elder partner and “dad” he’s perfect as the somewhat straight man. Throw Robert Stack, Harry Shearer, and Abe Vigoda into the mix and you literally can not go wrong. Good times!

It’s sort of weird: Plain Clothes has been one of my favorite films for a really long time, and I determined long ago that I would write a review of it. Yet I never got around to it, and even as I’m inspired to review it as part of a themed week’s festivities, it’s hard to achieve my usual reviewing enthusiasm and pop off the walls while I manically type.

But I think that’s tied into one of the strengths of Plain Clothes: It’s laidback to the point of coma. I can watch it to relax, because it’s like the film decided to not get too excited about much and just cruises along. The quirky pop soundtrack helps, in that regard, but I think the refusal to manipulate we the viewer one way or another helps as well.

Sure, we’re supposed to see what a crazy time high school is and how synthetic the whole façade of popularity can be, but it’s presented in a take-it-or-leave-it way. The popular kids and outcasts don’t get judged nor do they become empowered as a result of Nick’s actions; if anything, only one punk gets some extracurricular schooling about how the world works and even then it makes sense in the plot and doesn’t get lingered on or receive a jump in the orchestration.

Plain Clothes is stripped down to the essentials with a splash of background oddity throw in (listen to those intercom announcements and recall the ones you had to sit through back in the day) and it’s just like life, only compressed into a matter of days. I love it.

Hmm, I’ve been reading too much theory and stuff and obviously jumped into the deep end of “pretentious film theory and story deconstruction.” Sorry, though hopefully some enjoyed it. Basically, Plain Clothes will feel very familiar to you but has its very own look and quirkiness to make it quite unique. Not too many people know about it, but those who have watched it always tell me it was surprisingly “great, for an ‘80s movie.” What better recommendation is there than that? It’s not too feel-good, it just is. In these post-post-post modern times, what more can we ask for?

Didja notice?

  • High school can be tough, but high school without air conditioning is heinous!
  • This is one of the first times Kyle ever realized that there were other people in the world named Kyle. Later, Dune and the television show Twin Peaks would further open my eyes, but this was awesome!
  • Eating sunflower seeds makes you automatically awesome. Additionally, they’re supposedly good for your brain or something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s