The world is too messed up to obsess over bad movies as much as we do; isn’t it time we obsess over good ones? In his allegedly monthly column You Have To See This, Chuck Winters reaches into his pile of flawed, forgotten, or just plain fascinating gems to figure out what makes them tick and what makes them matter.
Stay with me for a minute while I talk a little bit about Alex Chilton, who was sixteen years old when he first got onto the radio.
At the time he was the lead singer of a band called The Box Tops; their breakout song was “The Letter,” written by Wayne Carson. It starts like this: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane / I ain’t got time to take a fast train / Lonely days are gone, I’m a comin’ home / My baby just wrote me a letter.” It was their first hit, charting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, #2 for the entire year of 1967 (Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” was #1).
Chilton would never see that exact level of commercial success again, particularly not after The Box Tops disbanded. Still, he’d garner a lot of respect among music nerds and fellow musicians as the frontman of Big Star, whom the public at large would likely know for “In the Street,” the theme song for That ’70s Show (not his version, though; the show used covers by Todd Griffin and Cheap Trick). One of his admirers was Paul Westerberg, the lead singer of The Replacements—another band that didn’t get its due until long after they broke up. In 1987, the band released Pleased to Meet Me; its first single featured Chilton on guitar. It started: “Write you a letter tomorrow / Tonight I can’t hold a pen / Someone’s got a stamp that I can borrow / I promise not to blow the address again.”
That song is “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and though the connections are a bit tenuous, when you compare those lyrics to the ones that open up “The Letter,” it charts a clear path between the excitement and eagerness of youth in the late 60s to their angst and increasing disenfranchisement in the late 80s. It was part of a wave of music that built and built underground until it exploded into the mainstream with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the early 90s.
Now, counter-culture has existed for as long as culture has, since Ugg carved the first wheel out of stone and Oog declared stone to be passé. However, Nirvana had entered the picture at a time when the western world faced few clear existential threats. This gave civilized society, particularly its youth, a perfect opportunity to examine the commercialized, consumerist world it was inheriting and say “I don’t like what I see.” Not coincidentally, one can interpret “Can’t Hardly Wait” to be about the feeling that there’s something more to the life that you live, and the frustration of searching for it. From his own perspective informed by years of rampant substance abuse and grinding it out in tiny venues, Westerberg sings: “Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff / Ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” It’s a sentiment that we can easily project onto our own lives; we each have our own version of the dank music halls that Westerberg refers to in his song.
It wouldn’t be too long before the “pop” would come back to pop culture, with teenage girls going to war over their favorite boy bands while teenage boys had wet dreams about the hottest female acts. Still, those teenagers who rejected The Word of TRL, who wore “SPEAR BRITNEY” shirts and made crass jokes about “The Backdoor Boys,” felt far less alone thanks in no small part to grunge’s turn in the spotlight.
Enter Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, two NYU grads and co-writers of A Very Brady Sequel who had a chance to take their first turn behind the camera with a teen movie that they wrote. And in an age where teen movies enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with a music industry that used them to push fresh tracks from favored acts, they titled this movie after a then decade-old punk rock song.
When Can’t Hardly Wait was released 19 years ago, A Very Brady Sequel was the only other produced script that Kaplan and Elfont had their names on. They’d go on to be credited on scripts for The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Surviving Christmas, and Leap Year. Funnily enough, while all those films went by like farts in the wind, the only other film they directed would become a cult classic in its own right: Josie and the Pussycats. Commercially, Can’t Hardly Wait did well, grossing a little over $25 million against a reported $10 million budget. But critics were cold on it, and between that, the general glut of teen movies of that era, and the lack of anything really “buzzy” from Kaplan & Elfont since, it’s an easy work to overlook if you didn’t grow up with it.
The movie itself is fairly well-represented by the trailer; its tone maybe a little lighter, certainly more absurd. The film is an Altman-esque narrative about six disparate high school graduates—some are friends with each other, but they’re not a crew—attending a post-graduation house party. They all have different goals going into this bash: Hopeless romantic Preston (Ethan Embry, last seen gloriously chumping it up on Sneaky Pete) wants to give a love letter to Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), believing that they’re fated to be together. His best friend Denise (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under) is a detached introvert who hates parties and is only there for reluctant moral support. Mega-jock Mike (Peter Facinelli, last seen as Maxwell Lord on Supergirl) just broke up with Amanda and plans to enjoy his first night as a free agent, but is hoping to encourage his buddies to dump their girlfriends too. Super-dork William (Charlie Korsmo) wants revenge on Mike after years of being tortured by him. Kenny (Seth Green), who can be politically described as “an appropriator of hip-hop culture,” wants to lose his virginity so he doesn’t embarrass himself in college. And as for Amanda herself (Jennifer Love Hewitt), she just wants…something, but we’ll get to that.
Most of this is gotten out of the way in the first ten minutes, beginning with a quietly tremendous credits sequence that captures the nervous energy building within this madding crowd, the kind of energy that wills the rager we’re about to see into existence. From there, Kaplan and Elfont make brilliant use of match cutting, intertitles, and choice music cues to sketch some surprisingly nuanced portraits of these characters in the short time they give themselves. Of course, they’re helped along by the performances: Embry walks the delicate line between “hopeless romantic” and “naive creep,” Korsmo (a child actor turned MIT student who briefly unretired to take this role) takes a traditionally sympathetic stereotype and casually turns him into a Saturday morning cartoon supervillain (replete with X-Files nerds as bumbling sidekicks, even!), and Seth Green gives Kenny an unexpected fragility that turns what should be an obnoxious character into someone weirdly endearing.
Like The Breakfast Club, the six main characters fill out the broad spectrum of the high school experience; they each carry a piece of this movie’s soul. Unlike the John Hughes classic, this story doesn’t take place during high school, but rather at the end of it, timed precisely to a specific moment between the comforts of childhood and the unknowns of adulthood. The soundtrack reinforces this; certainly it’s packed with such pop-rock standbys of its time as Third Eye Blind (“Graduate,” “London”), Eve 6 (“Open Road Song,” “Inside Out”), and Blink-182 (“Dammit”). But it branches from that, mixing in hip-hop both current (Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot) and old school (Tone Lōc, Young MC), while also throwing in a bunch of other tracks from different eras. The cuts go as deep as “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, “Funk #49” by James Gang, and “When Will I See You Again” by The Three Degrees. It’s not just the music these characters would listen to; it’s a little sprinkling of what their parents listened to as well. It’s the music they likely grew up with, and in a way, it represents everything they’re saying goodbye to.
What you come to realize is that the goals these characters have going into this party are representative of their views on life and their strategies to help them cope with this transition. Mike’s an over-validated hedonist who wants to be free; Kenny, who sees sex as the ultimate form of validation, wants to be loved. William’s vengeance allows his suffering to mean something; Denise wants to move on because the past shouldn’t have to mean anything.
As for Preston, well, he’s gambling on the idea that there’s a hidden order to the universe that has his back, no matter what. He might not be wrong about that, though; at the beginning of the movie, Preston—with the help of a flashback—lays out a halfway convincing argument that fate might have played a hand in introducing him to Amanda. (In this flashback, her face is constantly, at times hilariously obscured, removing her humanity and treating her more as an idyll; this is important.) With Fate being established as a possibly real thing in this story, the dramatic developments that happen at this party start to seem bigger than mere writerly conveniences; the way it plays host to one ironic comeuppance after another feels deliberate, a way of testing these kids and their beliefs.
Kenny, for instance, finds someone desperate enough to have sex with him. But while he’s secretly preparing himself in the off-limits upstairs bathroom, Denise—who it turns out was Kenny’s best friend in grade school—walks in on him and accidentally locks them both inside, sticking her with the past she’s desperate to leave behind and him with the collateral damage of his quest for mass approval. William, meanwhile, plans to lead Mike out to the poolhouse where his goons will ambush him with chloroform and snap embarrassing pictures. But for William’s plan to work, he has to blend into the party for a little bit. Which means drinking for the very first time. Which, once he gets used to it, turns him into the golden God of the party, and ultimately leads him into a hilarious and doomed friendship with Mike after the jock’s efforts to get his buddies to break up with their girlfriends end up ruining him.
The only major character to escape this cosmic judgment is the one character resigned to the idea that she is completely and utterly lost.
Amanda Beckett enters the party and the story proper to a fanfare of shocked gasps and the tune of “6 Underground” by Sneaker Pimps, dressed down in a simple spaghetti-strap tank and pencil skirt. If you wanted to be mean, you could say that in her character’s big introduction, Jennifer Love Hewitt looks like she accidentally wandered in from another shoot. When she enters, she has these dead eyes that are constantly searching the house like she’s surprised it exists and is unsure of how she got there. Beautiful as she is, she seems to lack the charisma of someone who, according to her yearbook profile, was a cheerleader, homecoming queen, and two-time prom queen, and that ends up being the point.
While everyone at this party is fretting about the uncertainty of the future or trying to ignore it altogether, for Amanda, that future kicked down her door the second Mike dumped her, and may have even called her in advance to let her know it was coming. At some point before the party, she realized that she spent the last years of her youth riding the popularity train. Now that the ride’s coming to an end, she realizes she doesn’t know the first thing about who she is and what she wants, and she can’t stand the people she rode with. Her girlfriends won’t listen to her when they pull her over to “cheer her up,” other girls spread nasty rumors behind her back, and all the guys—ALL the guys—just want to hook up with her. I’d be checked out too.
It’s pretty, popular Amanda who ends up being the heart of the movie, the one who best embodies the anxious, disenfranchised spirit of the titular Replacements song: desperate for something more than what she has, but so completely lost on how to get it that she can only wait for it to come to her. This isn’t some dude from the wrong side of the tracks struggling with the idea; this is the all-American dream girl, the one everyone wants (or wanted) to be. Amanda gets that there is more to the world than she can really grasp, and even though it’s more out of frustration and depression than true enlightenment, she’s surrendered to it.
For that, she’s rewarded, when a series of freaky coincidences drop Preston’s letter onto her lap, shortly after Preston throws it out in frustration after multiple failed attempts to personally deliver it. And it lights a fire in her, leading her on a desperate search for the guy who wrote it, not knowing that he already left the party.
Whether or not you actually believe in a greater order to the world, that philosophical idea and all its intricacies is a suitable way, at least in Kaplan and Elfont’s hands, to express that feeling of missing something in our lives when we burden ourselves with petty yet intimidating concerns like who we want to be with and what’s popular right now and who we’re supposed to be when we grow up. We never find out what’s in Preston’s letter; it’s the Noodle Incident of the story, the thing that works better in your imagination. Preston and Amanda work as a romantic pairing, despite their very limited screentime together, not because of whatever was in that letter, but because we can tell they’re both searching for the same thing.
That’s heavy for a movie that sits next to Never Been Kissed, American Pie, and She’s All That. Plenty of 90s kids really like those movies (well, at least the first two anyway), but the ones who love Can’t Hardly Wait get downright religious over it, myself included. (In the time I’ve spent mulling over this movie, I’ve come to realize it’s one of my all-time favorites, sitting on the same shelf as Die Hard and Chungking Express. That’s insane.) Part of it is that it’s funny as hell; I can easily spit out another hundred or so words just quoting this thing—”DENISE FLEMING IS A TAMPON.” “AmanDUHHHH.” “Nobody drink the beer, the beer has gone bad!”—but there’s just no way to do it justice in print. However, I think the reason this movie endures above so many others is because it captures a sense of nostalgia for a time that technically wasn’t quite over, and thoroughly nails the feeling of being stuck between childhood and adulthood, no matter when you grew up.
That’s why “Can’t Hardly Wait” is such a perfect title for this movie, aside from how well that song captures the emotional throughline of the film. Kaplan and Elfont don’t pretend to believe that everything will work out for everyone, but they do conclude that what we might call fate is just a product of cascading decisions made by the people around us, culminating with our own. In that way, past is ultimately prologue, and that makes The Replacements as relevant to these kids and their story as Third Eye Blind.
The song that gave the movie its title blasts over its credits, sounding as vital and powerful as it did ten years prior. However, the movie that preceded it brings out a sense of excitement in Paul Westerberg’s angsty vocals that may or may not have been noticed before. Entwined with the frustration of feeling stuck is the excitement to get started, a sense of readiness for whatever comes next, so perhaps the youth of today isn’t all that different from the youth of back then. After all, we just saw Amanda Beckett go from a depressed, disenfranchised girl to a confident and eager young woman, all because her baby wrote her a letter.
If you know of any movies that you think deserve to be covered in You Have To See This, feel free to tweet your suggestions to @DivisionPost!