Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Cheapo DVD: Plain Clothes

I recently went on a DVD buying spree at Amazon, looking up titles I remember seeing when I was much younger and that left an impression on me, someway or other. The first one to arrive was Plain Clothes, a mostly cheesy "cop goes undercover as a high school student" dramedy from way back 1988, when I was about 16. Its headliner is Arliss Howard, to which you probably just said, "Who?" He's been in a lot of things, including (back in the day) Full Metal Jacket and (at a more mature age but still a while ago) a few episodes of Medium. Other than being about as good-looking as they get, when he made this movie, and having a combination of a direct gaze and a mild smile that was almost as good as a sarcastic remark, he didn't bring much to the role. Which is probably why you said, "Who?"

Nevertheless, it's fun to watch the guy disarm a hostage situation, infiltrate the student body of Adlai Stevenson High School to find out who's framing his little brother (Loren Dean) for murder, and gradually transform from a misfit to the most popular kid in the school while dodging trouble from a fellow cop – because if he's caught meddling with an investigation while under suspension, he'll be in a heap of trouble – as well as a bunch of corrupt, cornball teachers. His castmates include Abe Vigoda (actually with a "Still Alive" sign taped to his back at one point), Diane Ladd (Chinatown), Seymour Cassel (Faces), Robert Stack (Airplane!), Harry Shearer (The Simpsons), George Wendt (Cheers), Reginald VelJohnson (Die Hard), Max Perlich (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Peter Dobson (The Frighteners), Suzy Amis (Titanic and The Usual Suspects), and the list of familiar faces goes on, albeit growing more and more obscure to present-day movie fans. I hate to say it, but I think it's Robert Stack whose performance sets the tone for the whole movie, even though it's a small role. That and a series of jokes in the form of announcements over the school P.A. system, such as one asking whoever left the nurse's office with a certain thermometer, ahem, on their person to return with it.

Before I get to the Three Scenes That Made It For Me, I have to admit that the one scene that has kept this film on my mind all these years is still the best reason to see it today. Assigned by his pretty English teacher to give an example of a metaphor, he reads e e cummings's poem "she being brand new" – a tour-de-force of sexual innuendo disguised as a story about a car – and gets every girl (and woman) in the room hot under the collar. A boy then breaks the tension by saying, "I had a car like that once." If you don't think that's worth the price of seeing this movie, you might want to skip it. Or maybe not. There is a certain silly charm in George Wendt's patter as a pathetic school counselor, Peter Dobson's desperate efforts as a school bully, Seymour Cassel's buddy cop/fake dad gags, and all the deadpan details like the grim fate of Diane Ladd's first husband and her ironic message on a dead man's answering machine. And also, pretty much everything Abe Vigoda does. It's a movie that edges shy of becoming offensive, magically kept "just cute" by the evident consciousness of the ridiculousness of it all that gleams in Howard's eyes in every scene.

And now those Three Scenes, not including the One Scene discussed above: (1) Wendt tells Howard a story, meant to be inspiring, about how he turned a student's life around by putting wood shop tools in her hand and getting her to make something. Asked what happened to her after high school, Wendt snorts, "I don't care." (2) Dean tells Howard about a kid who hanged himself in his cell, a moment that brings this movie as close to real drama as it gets. (3) The arrest of all the teachers (except the cute English teacher) for pension plan fraud by a cop who stumbled upon their conspiracy while fleeing a vicious guard dog. It's truly a movie in which your favorite scenes will most likely be based on what you consider the best gags. And, sure, the "she was brand new" scene, which has populated its own little space in my brain since about 1988.

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