Leave it to a film with an inexplicably frustrating title to provide one of the most frustrating film experiences of the 1980’s. 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful had all the ingredients to become the crown jewel (along with The Breakfast Club) of the 80’s teen angst opus; a genre so prominent, venerated, and well executed in that decade. Its director, Howard Deutch, was a hot commodity coming off his rookie effort, the Molly Ringwald hit Pretty in Pink; Wonderful’s writer, John Hughes (z’l), had been cranking out quality teen themed cinema for four years and gotten the task down to a weird science; its attractive stars, Eric Stoltz, Lea Thompson, and Mary Stuart Masterson, were fresh faced, talented, and had not yet been overly used and abused in this sort of fare. What a firecracker Some Kind of Wonderful should have been. And although it remains so at times, it is only in tantalizingly fleeting moments.
In typical Hughes fashion, the story is about a shy teen (Stoltz, strong but at 26 too old to be playing a senior in high school) from the wrong part of town who pines for a girl named Amanda Jones (Thompson, so engaging and effervescent) and a life that does not conform to his predetermined means. He spends his free time – time normally reserved for high school kids to conduct reckless adventures - working in a garage so his family can afford him college. His best friend is a tough leather clad chick with lesbian hair and the succinct name Watts, (Masterson, a tad too softly beautiful for the role). She of the icy facade and cloaked vulnerability is clearly stifling a major crush on the dude. Their relationship, while fleshed out and visually developed, remains somewhat of a screenwriter’s invention even as the closing credits ascend. Meanwhile, Amanda Jones (the name, an excuse to pump some Rolling Stones onto the soundtrack) is glamorous, built for daydreams, and dates Hardy Jenns, the rich poofy haired jerk who rules the school. But she also exhibits some redeeming qualities (you see, she does not come from as affluent stock as the crowd she runs with). Also in typical 80’s teen fantasy fashion, the outsider and the untouchable goddess link up due to an odd twist of fate; a classic combination of revenge, daring, and timing. And Stoltz’s enigmatic Keith Nelson (who is certainly no geek, just mature and introspective) manages to charm Amanda while at the same time teaching the popular girl something about her self-worth. He also confronts the bully with the help of other bullies, and, naturally, but still presented in a startlingly brutal manner, rages against his
dad who doesn’t understand him.
Some Kind of Wonderful separates itself not only by the eclectic cast (which includes a memorable supporting team of John Ashton, Elias Koteas, and Scott Coffey), but also because it seems to refuse to play by the rules of its predecessors. For what ostensibly was meant to be just another by the numbers entry in a profitable of-the-moment genre, Deutch’s film takes surprising risks. Hughes was never averse to throwing a curveball, but it was always of the predictable variety. Hughes was a curveball pitcher, but it was always that lazy curve. He made the kind of “interesting” choices that an audience potentially saw coming. Some Kind of Wonderful at some turns appears to throw out the rule book, and that becomes its strength but also its ultimate weakness.
Keith’s passion (or perhaps whimsy) for Amanda and her eventually falling for him, nothing more than a high school caliber affair (which of course is immensely powerful and as Hughes always revealed so respectfully, should never be underestimated) is taken to mind-bogglingly dramatic extremes. The kind of extremes that allow for individual scenes of heartbreaking eloquence and intensity, but also when strung together, the affect is general disbelief in the overall proceeding. If Hughes had one limitation, it was his inability to consistently depict that middle ground where the reality of life and the sur-reality of high school blended together. He preferred, rather, to make “fun” movies that mix both styles in separate batches, where almost opposing storytelling techniques were edited together, intermittently and randomly representing each unique flavor. When Some Kind of Wonderful aims for true emotions and purity, which it does more often than not, it excels; when it scrapes the barrel of high school flick cliché, conventional characterizations (with a particularly egregious example in Craig Sheffer’s Hardy), and wild plot devices, it by necessity disappoints. Throw in the whole uncomfortable and virtually indigestible best friend/crush dynamic which builds to a ridiculous and rushed climax, and the film’s potential is sapped down to a still very worthwhile core, but nothing compared to what might have been. A movie that could have been something wonderful, winds up only kind of.