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Heathers (1988)

by on 2011/09/25

“To think there was a time when I actually thought you were cool.”

* *

Heathers has long since worn out its welcome with me. In high school, this mordant tale of the cool kid clique was very popular with my cool kid clique . . . at least the one I thought was cool at the time.

A generation later, I have seen it a few times since and I must be getting old, forgetful, establishment or (heaven forfend) a bit wiser.

I now dislike it intensely, more and more so with each new viewing. A subsequent screening might grant me the insight to give it a rare single star.

Set in Sherwood, Ohio, in the mid-1980s, the various threads involve and surround a group of three teen girls, all named Heather. Secretly conflicted, but ostensibly anxious to please them, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) joins in their pranks and general nastiness. Along the way she meets Jason Dean (Christian Slater) and sees the error of her ingratiating compromises. She winds up joining J.D. on a romantic spree of vengeance.

* *

“Now blah blah blah is all I do. I use my grand I.Q. to figure out what color gloss to wear and how to hit three keggers before curfew. Some genius.”

* *

Everything strikes a mixed-up tone, as if it’s unsure of its own intent. Does Veronica feel bad about what she does? If so, why do it? J.D. reminds her she should feel bad, then sets her on a different slippery slope.

She desperately wants to belong somewhere, almost anywhere, and will knowingly — if reluctantly — compromise her principles to do so. Yet she’s just as often a rebel who strikes out on her own. Perhaps she’s intended to be confused or confusing. If so, well, mission accomplished.

If it’s all being played for laughs then, so be it, let’s gear up for dark comedy. But then moments of genuine pathos suddenly appear. For example, stage-whispered gallows humour at a funeral is juxtaposed with a grieving young relative, and Veronica’s reaction: shame at the hurt she has caused.

The trouble faced by satire is knowing the demographic. In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins risks preaching to the converted, and any who disagree with him may find the poker-faced outrageousness to their liking.

In Heathers, the filmmakers can claim to be sending a message on teen suicide, but nothing prevents their audience from focusing on the spectacular deaths, missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. To wit, I’d suggest a pivotal line, “I love my dead gay son” is often quoted more as a “joke” than the social commentary intended.

* *

“Do you actually think you’re a rebel? You’re . . . psychotic!”

* *

Assuming the movie struck a successful balance — which it didn’t — its expression remains erratic and patchy. It too often trips past provocation into offense, using quirk and pretension as bait. Unfortunately if, like me, you abhor this approach, much of the dialogue comes across like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, as he makes “the most annoying sound in the world”.

To me, this entire experience felt like visiting with someone who expressed their desperate rebelliousness by irritating anyone nearby. I’ve seen promotional copy claiming that pieces like Juno could not have existed without Heathers. Frankly, Juno would have benefited a great deal with less of the quirk common here.

The lazy device of a narrated diary forms a nearly persistent voice-over, both unnecessary and seemingly abandoned partway through. During these scenes, Veronica wears a monocle as she delivers her clubbing to our heads.

Nearly every spoken line is self-aware claptrap. They’re delivered between isolated actions, as if no one is able to walk and talk at once. A subset of gags recur far too much: the sardonic exchanges with Veronica’s family, the motif of J.D. and his father’s swapped roles, the too-clever malapropisms of Glenn Shadix’s clergyman.

At so many levels, in so many ways, it’s relentlessly unpleasant: the story, its writing, the delivery, and the intercut style of editing. Even the obtrusive synthetic score grated and bothered me.

* *

“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”

* *

At first I reacted more charitably, thinking “I’m not the intended audience.” Then I realized this wasn’t the case at all. Never mind the opinions of any knee-jerk bohemians dazzled by its provocation. Heathers is overwrought, pretentious, plodding, and overlong. If it has a point, it has been delivered in such a misguided, scattershot manner that nothing makes a significant impact, and will just as likely irritate in trying far too hard.

Perhaps the most unfortunate twist in the entire sordid mess is the death of Kim Walker (Heather Chandler). She died of a brain tumour at the age of 32, an exceedingly cruel irony, given one of her lines to Ryder’s Veronica.

My only recommendation is to watch the teaser trailer. Certainly, it’s beguiling, misleadingly so, but it’s superior in every way, not least because it’s mercifully brief.

* *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

103 minutes

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