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Pretty in Pink

#531 - Pretty in Pink
Howard Deutch, 1986

A working-class high-school student finds herself becoming attracted to an upper-class classmate while also dealing with her friend's unrequited crush on her.

My opinion of John Hughes as a creator of entertainment are rather mixed, to say the least. I used to love Ferris Bueller's Day Off when I was younger but I'd be hard-pressed to say that I hold that opinion now, while The Breakfast Club definitely has its flaws but I like it well enough on its own terms to consider it a third-tier favourite. I haven't seen Planes, Trains, and Automobiles all the way through (though I do want to). However, I thought Sixteen Candles was poor enough in quality that I stuck it on my "worst 100" list. Though Pretty in Pink promised to be very much of the same ilk as Sixteen Candles in that it focused on Molly Ringwald's teenage protagonist as she had to navigate various romantic problems, I figured I'd still give it a chance. Credit where credit's due, it definitely improves on the incredibly thin Sixteen Candles by offering a slightly more complex dilemma for Ringwald's character as she not only has to handle the social stigma associated with living in a lower-class house with her unemployed single father (Harry Dean Stanton) but also how it promises to affect her romantic chances with a handsome upper-class boy (Andrew McCarthy). Meanwhile, other complicating elements include McCarthy's supremely snobby friend (James Spader) trying to keep the two apart and Ringwald's own friend (Jon Cryer), who carries his own torch for the unsuspecting Ringwald.

Though Pretty in Pink is still something of a step up from Sixteen Candles, that doesn't stop it from being a fundamentally boring film. Hughes (who wrote this but did not direct) has had detractors that have criticised his high-school films for depending on stereotypes while also managing to provide extra definition in regards to what makes them so stereotypical in the first place. Though that criticism arguably applies to The Breakfast Club (where the whole plot revolved around five completely opposed teen stereotypes spending a whole movie stuck together against their will), at least that film managed to provide some fairly interesting and humourous takes on seemingly trite characters. Pretty in Pink offers no such respite underneath the '80s hell that includes clashing clothes patterns and New Order on the soundtrack. Breakfast Club worked because everyone involved in the cast had their own small arc that intertwined with one another to make for a constantly interesting film, while Ferris Bueller at least provided a compelling blend of cool wish fulfillment, sadistic slapstick, and a fairly resonant emotional core about an especially neurotic introvert. The stigma against Ringwald due to her poor background is a decent enough arc, and it's a credit to both her and legendary character actor Stanton that they can sell this particular conflict well. Even so, that still gets steamrollered by the love triangle that erupts between Ringwald, Cryer, and McCarthy. Neither option, whether it's the emotionally fragile goofball or the blandly affable prep, seems like an especially desirable choice (even though Ringwald seems to gravitate towards McCarthy out of a sort of gold-digging pragmatism as much as genuine romantic attraction). As a result, the main plot loses what little momentum it has as we are treated to scene after scene that plods towards a conclusion that doesn't seem to have all that much at stake.

Even so, Pretty in Pink has some decent moments. The soundtrack is rife with extremely period-appropriate slices of popular and not-so-popular music that can definitely be picked out and picked apart (of course Cryer's character listens to the Smiths while at home by himself), but at least the film fully commits to capturing the ephemeral nature of mid-1980s America. The largely flat cast of characters may not be all that endearing, but the actors involved at least do their best to infuse said characters with some small degree of charm - I've already mentioned Stanton bringing his usual drawling that-guy charisma to his role as Ringwald's dad, but I think Cryer and Spader don't do all that badly in some otherwise unfortunate roles (to say nothing of Annie Potts as the owner-operator of the record store where Ringwald works). It's a shame that Ringwald and McCarthy, ostensibly the characters at the heart of the film, feel rather underwhelming in comparison. As a result, I still find it difficult to really care one way or the other about Pretty in Pink. It's not terrible in the same way that Sixteen Candles was, but there's very little here that serves to make it stand out in any favourable way. I guess the next time I feel like getting a Hughes fix I'll either throw on Breakfast Club again or maybe finish Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.