One Crazy Summer (1986)

I keep telling myself I need to make more of an effort to finish blogging up the films on my Reviews and Overviews list. So I figured the best way to go about that was to start with one that's not even on the list: *

* It's there now, of course.

Let's face it: 80s movies are awesome. You love them, I love them. Everybody but Robert Crumb loves them. Because they're awesome.

But what makes a movie an "80s movie"? Is Project X an 80s movie or just a movie that came out in the 80s? It's easier to see the 80s-ness in genre-stuff like comedies or Cobra, Commando or any of the Nightmare on Elm Streets than dramas like Prizzi's Honor or Children of a Lesser God. What exactly are the characteristics of an 80s drama vs. a 70s drama? Beyond my scope here, but let's see if we can make some headway on what makes the 80s Teen Comedy Human Interest Summer After High School sub-genre tick.


The plot is simple enough: Hoops (John Cusack) is a recent high school grad whose name is a bitter reminder of his failure to procure a basketball scholarship. He heads off for the summer with his slacker friend George (Joel Murray) to Nantucket where he must finish his application to the Rhode Island School of Design. Problem is, he needs to come up with an animated story about love, and he's never been in love. Enter Cassandra (Demi Moore), a young singer who's come to the island to save her family home from the Beckersteads, a rich family of local jerks who want the property so they can develop it, played by recurring 80s bad guy of screens both large and small Mark Metcalf, future Major Dad star Matt Mulhern, and the legendary William Hickey.

With the help of fellow good-natured misfits the Stork Twins (Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Villard) and Ack-Ack (Curtis Armstrong), the gang enters the annual Nantucket regatta. If they win, Cassandra keeps the house. If they lose, the Beckersteads (rhymes with peckerheads) get everything. 

"Save it for the water!"

I saw this movie at a movie theater in Cape Cod, Massachusetts about ten days after returning to the States in 1986. I was twelve years old, and the film opens with an animated rhinoceros gunning down a gang of cute but cruel fuzzy bunnies with an Israeli sub-machine gun to the strands of David Lee Roth's "Easy Street." And it ends with this:

It also co-stars Bobcat Goldthwait, who was in Police Academy 2, which I watched on VHS a gazillion times. (Which hasn't aged well.) At the time, it was like someone had organized some "America! F**k Yeah!"  party and put it up on the screen, set in my new backyard, just for me

To be fair, 1986 was some kind of stars-aligning anomaly of "America! F**k Yeah!" movies for a 12 year old me: Aliens, Top Gun, Transformers, Big Trouble in Little China, Maximum Overdrive, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Back To School, you name it. In the Great Museum of Years That Cast a Long Cinematic Shadow in My Life, only 1982 is its equal.


At the time of this movie, Demi Moore was more or less an A-list celebrity, while John Cusack's star was still on the rise. I've never heard Demi Moore speak about her experience making the movie, but I'm sure she'll devote several chapters to it when she finishes her memoirs.  

Apparently Cusack was emotionally detached during production. Opinions differ as to why, but the consensus seems to be that Cusack was unhappy with the finished product of his and director Savage Steve Holland's previous film Better Off Dead. Holland says Cusack hasn't spoken to him since. Although he seems to have mellowed a little on the topic these days, fans reported getting the cold shoulder from him if asked any questions about either film, or their merchandise pushed back across the table, unsigned.

None of this behind-the-scenes stuff translated to the screen. Both are playing to type - a neo-hippie ingĂ©nue (Moore) and a likable everyman protagonist (Cusack) - and acquit themselves pleasantly and professionally. Cassandra gets to perform the totally-80s "Don't Look Back". 

And just as we know from the moment Hoops tells George he knows nothing of love that the summer will end with him finding love, when we find out he has a deficiency he's touchy about - namely his inability to score a basket - we know we'll see him sink an all-important shot to resolve some otherwise-unresolvable situation in the third act:

Oh, you don't like boats? The third act will involve a boat.

Similarly, as soon as we learn Hoops' unique talent (his cartooning), we know it will serve the plot somehow.

probably as a way to mend the guy-loses-girl part of the arc, which is exactly what happens.

The easy joke is the outfits. But I can't say much. Popped collars, men's short shorts, Demi's baja - all of these things were staples of my wardrobe for the time period, as they were for many. Besides, I don't know if any one era has a monopoly on embarrassing fashion.


The Bad Guys

80s villains are as easy to spot as Bond villains. First: if the part isn't played by William Zabka or William Atherton, it was probably played by Mark Metcalf.

A land developer, of course.
Here we see him putting a stethoscope into the pot of boiling water so he can better hear the screams of the lobsters.

Second: his son, Teddy, angry, preppy man-child with sports car and sweater-tied-round-shoulders.

Third: Teddy's girlfriend, Muffy or Buffy or, as is the case here, Cookie (Kimberly Foster). High-maintenance-hot, duplicitous, sowing disruption and complication in her wake.

Naturally she has the hots for Hoops.

Finally: the evil sidekick, Ty, played by Jeremy Piven. More than just a toady, more like a deputy-sadist, a la Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds or Bobby from The Karate Kid. 

Piven's subsequent work speaks for itself, but even here, with a limited role, you can see him bringing some extra energy to every scene he's in. 

"Guys, She's Going To Lose the House."

A frequent refrain on the commentary track from Curtis Armstrong, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Savage Steve Holland, followed by one or all of them cracking up. They sure seemed to have a blast making both the film and the commentary. Cusack's vibes on-set caused a crisis of confidence for the director, so his buddies Armstrong and Goldthwait stepped up, improvising many of the gags as well as helping to finish the script. (Uncredited) Anyway - while not unique to 80s films, something like this (lose the house, lose the scholarship, lose your virginity - okay, that's a different bullet-point) was always in play.

Wacky Supporting Cast

A strong secondary cast of individuated characters is an essential component of 80s films; every character beyond the leads is an opportunity for gags. Also, emphasis on "supporting.

Like Richard Blade, Hoops, an outsider, is instantly and enthusiastically crowned as the leader of a pre-existing group of friends.

First up: George, "likable sidekick." His running gag in the film is that a large man who consumes only flatulence-producing food keeps knocking him unconscious at the beach.

Joel might be best known for the role he played on Mad Men, but everytime I see his name anywhere now, I think of this anecdote Kelly Lynch told the AV Club about how anytime Road House is on cable, "Bill (Murray) or one of his idiot brothers (Joel or Brian Doyle-Murray)" will call her house to tell her husband that she is having sex with Patrick Swayze. "They're doing it right now - turn on your television!" It's easy to picture the George of One Crazy Summer making such a call.

As befitting a movie where any part is an opportunity for gags, George's relatives are all memorable. His sister Squid and her ugly-as-dirt dog Bosco accompany him and Hoops to Nantucket:

Bad things happen to any who make fun (or, in the case of the Beckersteads, kick) Bosco.

And it's the 80s, so Billie Bird (Grandma) has to show up somewhere. I think that was a Union rule at the time, much like if you showed a swimming pool, someone had to go crashing into it. (Something Bobcat says on the commentary track)

And then there's Bruce Wagner as Uncle Frank, who spends each summer locked up in a room listening to the radio so he can call in and win the lottery. 

Wagner has gone on to have a fascinating career as a writer. I can't exactly recommend his 2012 book Dead Stars -  a grotesque of America's youth-and-celebrity obsession in the vein of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers though much more pornographic and envelope-pushing - but he wrote the script for Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, also starring Cusack. (All roads lead back to One Crazy Summer.)

Curtis Armstrong plays Ack-Ack, one of George's friends on the island. He gets his own story arc as the son of a militaristic, demanding father (Joe Flaherty) determined to follow in his footsteps despite being a peaceful, timid soul. 

His love of Odie (from Garfield) ends up providing more motivation to beat the Beckersteads in the boat race:
Teddy cuts off his felt tongue and feeds it to Ty.
They also use a crossbow to take out an Australian competitor, whom Ack-Ack then jumps in the water to save, an act of physical bravery that prompts his father to finally accept him. (Sidenote: Australians pop up in a lot of 80s movies, too. I don't know if anyone has ever properly explained why this is the case.)

Finally, there's the Stork Twins.

These two might be a bit too broad or over-the-top for an audience in 2016, but quasi-autistic, bullied, good-hearted losers were a staple of many an 80s film. While everyone else ends the film by getting what they want or deserve (Hoops finds love with Cassandra, George and Cookie hook up, Ack-Ack reconciles with his father) Egg and Clay Stork are left to make the best of their existence as ostracized, mentally-challenged on an island of their social betters. It's not set in stone that this summer with Hoops is the high point of their lives, but it wouldn't surprise anyone to discover it was. Sad but not sad - after all, it is one crazy summer. (Sorry.)

Incidentally, I noticed more than a little similarity between the Bobcat Goldthwait "schtick" and Charlie Day's. I wonder if Charlie's ever cited him as an influence?

The Montage

No era except the Soviet Expressionism of the 1920s had more montages than the 80s. One Crazy Summer's is particularly representative of the era - the gang fixing up "The Boat" as the soundtrack blares. This clip replaces the original sountrack with "Sports Training Montage" from the Team America soundtrack, so it's inauthentic, but it's the only one of the montage I could find. 

"That's the real investment, Teddy - FRIENDSHIP!"

Foam - the Dolphin with Rabies 
and the Godzilla Suit

Kids of the 21st century might not realize this, but there was a time when constant mash-ups and referential humor very much were not the norm but confined to outlier-movies like One Crazy Summer. It took The Simpsons to popularize this sort of humor mainstream and (arguably) Family Guy to bring it to the low-hanging-fruit ubiquity of nowadays.  

Cars or Motorcycles Crashing into Bodies of Water 

'Nuff said.

Almost a museum collection of 80s tropes in this movie. Nothing involving a foreign exchange student or losing one's virginity, but you can't have everything. I'm probably missing a few, even. 

I leave you with some random tidbits from the commentary track:

- Several Beach Boys songs are used in the film, so Savage Steve Holland had to show both Mike Love and Brian Wilson (and Eugene Landy, whose "care" Wilson was under at the time) the film. Neither of them got it, at all, but they were fine with his using the tunes.

- There is some debate over what is the"oldest joke in the book." Bobcat thinks it's when two guys try to get through a door at the same time. This really cracked me up for some reason. Incidentally, while all three of them seem like fun and down-to-earth guys, Bobcat steals the show at the end with his spirited rendition of Honeymoon Suite's "What Does It Take." 

- Filming the boat race was a challenge. Armstrong almost drowned, and boats can't easily hit their marks. Filming on water sounds like the biggest headache possible. All things considered, the crew did quite well.

One Crazy Summer was


  1. We need more directors who called themselves "Savage."

  2. Considering that I was 2 years old the year this movie was unreleased, it seems unfathomable for me to never have seen it. And yet, I've never seen it. It sounds like the sort of thing I'd enjoy, though; and I'm a big fan of "Better Off Dead," so that certainly increases the likelihood.

    I'm sure there's a way to spin the we're-gonna-lose-our-house theme of the '80s into it being the cause of the '08 recession. I don't have the moxie to do it, but I betcha somebody else could get it done.

    I don't believe I've ever actually seen anyone in real life wearing a sweater tied around their shoulders. If I did, I'd shit.

    I'd love to see a scientific formula that quantified a movie's '80sness. Or its '70sness. Are there movies right now that people will look back on and say, "Yep, only in the '10s"? There must be, but for the life of me, I can't think of what it would be. But that's okay: you never see the past until it's over.

    1. I wonder if the sweater tied around the shoulders business is a New England thing. It's awful, though, for sure. I was watching "It's Garry Shandling's Show" the other night, and Garry wondered if people who did this also tied their socks around their ankles. (That show was from a year after this movie, actually - maybe by then the sweaters-round-the-shoulders thing started irking people.)

      I think you can spreadsheet out what makes an 80s movie an 80s movie. We'll get there! Sooner or later, we'll get there. I hear you on the past. I feel like I can distinguish characteristics by decade up until the 00s. Then I lose it. Is it just because it's too recent, or because my frame of reference will always end and start in the same place? The eternal question. Hence the Robey! What hath man wrought.