'Take Me Home Tonight': One Night Bland
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
About a third into this film, in the middle of a party scene, a young adult male, before an audience of fellow revelers, gets on his knees and proposes marriage to the woman he's been, as they say, dating. This woman accepts the proposal, and all of the young rowdy partygoers break into applause. Which in the film is captured, as it customarily is in such turning-point moments, in slow motion. The better to accentuate, of course, that one young man in the crowd isn't clapping, but is rather just standing there, mouth agape, looking as if the worst that could happen to him has just happened. And, to further underscore this, the camera begins to move toward the young man as he continues to stand there, mouth agape, as everyone else applauds.
In normal romantic-comedy-among-the-young film grammar, these shots, and the slow-mo, and the camera movement, would connote that the heroine has consented to throw in her lot with a lout. Meanwhile, the hero, the guy she's meant to be with all along and with whom she will, indeed, end up before the final credits roll, gets to be devastated, after which he hatches the scheme to get her back before she ruins her life with this loser. We all know how it goes. Except in this film, the girl accepting the marriage proposal and the guy freaking out about it are not -- and by law cannot -- be romantically involved. Here Matt (Topher Grace) and Wendy (Anna Faris) are, as it happens, brother and sister. Twins, in fact. And while Matt is right to be unhappy about the whole proposal thing -- the guy doing the proposing, Kyle, is kind of a jackass, enough of a jackass that it's almost impossible to picture what he and Wendy are doing together, but that's still another matter -- it doesn't necessarily follow that he would be unhappy about it in that exact way.
That weird little disconnect exemplifies what's wrong throughout "Take Me Home Tonight." It's an amiable enough pastiche in which "That '70s Show" star Grace, who co-executive-produced and co-concocted the story, such as it is, does the '80s thing, setting the tale of recent MIT grad Matt's professional and romantic travails upon his return to his ancestral home in Los Angeles in 1988, after a brief preamble set in '84. The '88 setting means you get to hear not just "Der Kommissar" and "Don't You Want Me" on the soundtrack, but also N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," which Grace's Matt and his best friend Barry (Dan Fogler; think a chubbier, less-cutting Curtis Armstrong in "Risky Business") get to sing along to, N-words and all, in a Benz they just stole from the dealership Barry just got fired from. Not that these kids are criminals or even particularly reprobate-inclined. As in the '80s teen movies this one pays homage to, it isn't just that some of the period details ring as kind of forced. I was in my 20s in the '80s, and I can assure you that while the British prefab combo Frankie Goes to Hollywood did manage to chart a couple of hits in America, at no point did any resident of the Continental United States ever sport a "Frankie Say Relax" T-shirt, ever.
It's also that the comic tone is both strained and straining, Grace himself too smooth, handsome and ingratiating to make his character's dissembling-because-he's-genuinely-awkward-and-lost routine register. In less fancy terms, he's too cute to be a convincing near-loser. Also, most MIT grads who haven't already turned schizophrenic are usually more motivated than Grace's character. Also weird is how de-glammed Anna Faris (for whom I have established a very unofficial fan club) is: She kind of looks like she could play older sister to New York indie darling Lena Dunham here.
And why's her short-story-writing character want to do graduate studies at Cambridge? I know it's a fancy-name European university, but isn't it more known for science than its fiction workshops? Sure, details like this aren't going to matter to the average moviegoer, but I'd say that that just strengthens my point: If the movie had actually been delivering the laughs and engagement that would matter to the average moviegoer, it's likely that I myself wouldn't have been so easily distracted by these weird niggling details. Q.E.D., as they say at Cambridge sometimes.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.