Not to brag but we all know the secret to my great success in this most respected artform of filmatic criticism is my appeal to the youths. You almost definitely can’t tell, it’s basically imperceptible to the human eye, but the individual pictured to the left here is not a cool young teen. He is in fact an adult man of age. But he wears a headband and passes for a youth. That’s pretty much what my reviews are like. Grown up, but ageless, vital, wearing a headband with a picture of a skull on it. Cool.
My timeless words and topics reach out even to generations that have largely abandoned the watching of movies, let alone the reading about them, in favor of other forms of expression such as short video clips of some jackass looking into their phone jabbering about some inane topic or other. I just get them and they get me so it’s not necessary, but just in case I’m gonna pander to that important demographic by offering this fun “back to school” themed review. If I know Gen-whichever-letter-we’re-on-now as well as I think I do those little dorks are gonna flip for my thoughts on Martha Coolidge’s PLAIN CLOTHES, an obscure 1988 bomb about a cop going undercover as a high school student to prove his brother didn’t murder his teacher.
Arliss Howard, in his mid-thirties and fresh off of FULL METAL JACKET, plays 24-year-old Seattle Police Department detective Nick Dunbar. He’s introduced undercover as an ice cream man while his partner Ed Malmburg (Seymour Cassel, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS), whose out-of-fashion mustache and suits signify a generation gap, is on lookout. Nick hates being around so many kids, but when he goes to complain about it to his captain (Reginald VelJohnson right before DIE HARD), who’s sipping from a “Trust Me I’m a Father” mug, is deeply offended and yells that it’s “goddamned unamerican” to not like kids.
Nick’s younger brother Matt (Loren Dean, THE MULE) is a high school troublemaker who gets in an argument with a teacher right before said teacher is stabbed to death in the hallway. I’ve noted before the odd ‘80s phenomenon of comedies that were also straight cop movies with violence and everything. This seems semi-serious about its police procedural stuff but, coming from the director of VALLEY GIRL and REAL GENIUS, it’s also full of quirk and silliness. For example, when Nick goes to talk his brother down from a SWAT standoff he finds him tucked into a little cottage in a fairy-tale-themed playground, and he politely introduces him to his hostage.
Nick convinces his brother to surrender, and then goes undercover in the school to find the real killer. Everyone is always saying Nick looks younger than 24 but I gotta be honest, he looks like he could be these kids’ dad while he’s sitting in class with them wearing punk clothes, claiming he’s Nick Springsteen from Delaware. “Any relation?” people ask, and he says, “Distant.” He questions and snoops around while going to class, making friends, learning how to dress, raising a few suspicions. There are more threats and murders as he follows a trail of clues to uncover a blackmail conspiracy and a scam in the past, leading him to the true culprit.
There’s lots of wackiness among the adults staffing the school. Robert Stack (BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA) plays the principal, and can often be heard in the background making goofy announcements over the intercom, like one about “a screening of the film ‘Why Suzy Can’t Go Swimming’,” or a reference to that time when Ronald Reagan joked about nuclear war on a hot mic. You also got Diane Ladd (CARNOSAUR) as the weirdo, Ziggy-loving secretary and Abe Vigoda (THE GODFATHER, GOOD BURGER) and George Wendt (SPACE TRUCKERS) as teachers.
Notably/uncomfortably Suzy Amis (BLOWN AWAY) plays English teacher Robin Torrence. She looks younger than Nick (and Amis is younger than Howard), and Nick immediately falls for her. It’s actually easy to imagine a TOP GUN type situation where he hits on her and she pushes him away at first, but Coolidge goes for almost the reverse – Ms. Torrence clearly has a crush on him too and finds herself talking to him in the halls and the parking lot and offering him a ride home and stuff. She’s not trying to make a move, and believes he’s 18, but we all know what’s going on here, and it’s unethical. He’s tempted but seems worried he’s gonna blow his cover, so he turns her down.
Meanwhile, for investigative purposes he has to flirt with an actual teenager, the popular Daun-Marie (Alexandra Powers, SONNY BOY), because her dad (Jackie Gayle, BULWORTH) is the coach, and may know something. It’s an interesting spin on stereotypes – she’s a blonde, bubbly teenager but she’s also smart, and he spends time with her by pretending to need help with his geometry homework. She can’t keep her hands off of him, which makes him appropriately uncomfortable. But also Ms. Torrence acts jealous whenever she sees them together!
Maybe the craziest scene, and the one that gets all these women and girls lusting after him, is when he has to bring an example of a metaphor to class, and he chooses the e.e. cummings poem “she being brand new,” which talks about cars but is really talking about… uh… doing it. As he stands up and reads it, first Ms. Torrence and then every other female in the class is shown sweating, blushing, biting their lips, squeezing their legs together, about to burst.
I think if a dude directed this scene we could laugh at him, but since it was Coolidge I’m just gonna say, “Huh.”
There are all kinds of oddball things going on in the school that aren’t really self-explanatory. They do call it out as Seattle and have local touches like Ed wearing a Seahawks jacket and one of the songs on the soundtrack mentioning the rain and The Sonics, and yet they make it always very hot, the cast always having sweat on their foreheads. Coolidge says in her director commentary that it takes place during an unusual heatwave and when the A/C at the school is broken. I’m not sure why.
She didn’t really explain this one, but the climax takes place during an annual carnival held at the school, which is themed around May Day and involves 35-year-old-24-year-old-18-year-old Nick Springsteen being so popular he’s named “King of the May,” which everyone says like it’s a normal thing. At the entrance there’s a sign that says “Welcome Pagans,” and I couldn’t tell if that’s the mascot of the school (which would be interesting) or an acknowledgment of May Day being a pagan thing (which would also be interesting).
My favorite detail that flew over my head, but that Coolidge pointed out on the commentary, is that they purposely gave all the students nice cars and all the teachers total junkers. Middle class people being underpaid to teach rich kids.
Another interesting tidbit from the commentary is that she made all the actors playing teachers do a day of substitute teaching in Seattle public schools. She claims only Abe Vigoda was recognized. (Did George Wendt wear a disguise or something? The man was an icon in those days, if not now. Cheers must’ve been in season 6 or 7 when it was filming.)
Coolidge was supposed to be directing SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL at the time, but says John Hughes replaced her “on a whim,” so the studio felt bad and found another project for her. I honestly don’t know what they were trying to do with this story, but I appreciate the amount of personality she brings to it. One nice directorial touch is the opening shot, which moves through a classroom floor, hearing overdubbed dialogue but showing who the students are only through their varied footwear and the ways they position their feet, until that teacher falls to the tiles dead, kicking off the whole mystery.
From an action standpoint I respect the way Coolidge sets up various objects that will be used during the climactic battle through the school: the principal’s spanking paddle, a pencil tucked inside an arm cast. There’s a part where the killer shoots into a science classroom, blowing away one of those hanging display skeletons. The cleverest part is when one of the pencils previously established as stuck into the ceiling falls and hits the killer on the head, causing a distraction. Nick further delays him with the sound of his fingernails across the chalkboard, and throwing a chalky eraser at his face. I like in a movie when it’s clear they went through all the available props and tried to figure out how many could be thrown at somebody. And I have to doff my cap and also say “what the fuck!?” for the part where Nick evades gunfire with an impossible Superman leap over filing cabinets. What is this, DISTRICT B13?
Admittedly I may be going easy on this for being the rare actually-filmed-in-and-around-Seattle major motion picture. There aren’t any scenes downtown and I don’t know the school they filmed in, but right at the beginning there are some very recognizable Seattle streets. And Coolidge says she “found it to be an absolutely beautiful place” and “very attractive city.” Aw, shucks.
As far as a 1988 time capsule it’s okay. There’s some Vision Street Wear. Some haircuts. The soundtrack is pretty good but doesn’t strike me as representative of the times. There are a bunch of songs by The Knack. I’m only a couple years younger than the students at that school and to this day the only reason I know who The Knack are is because Weird Al and Dead Kennedys both parodied “My Sharona.” But maybe it’s supposed to be the music you’d be into if you were a cop pretending to be a teen.
Okay, I confess that I did not find PLAIN CLOTHES to be good. But I found it to be interesting. Maybe you would too. Thanks, youths. Stay in school.