Stay Cool

Stay Cool


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Ever since Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster switched places in 1976’s Freaky Friday, age-swap comedies – and their close cousins, featuring time-travelling teens – have been a perennial favourite at the box office. From the Eighties hits of Big and Vice Versa to the more recent 13 Going On 30 and 17 Again, they aim to capitalise on every youngster's desire to ‘grow up’ while at the same time tapping into their parents’ rose-tinted vision of the past.

Leave it to auteur twins the Polish Brothers, then, to aim their take firmly at adults and to put a seriously cerebral spin on this most formulaic of formats as they send their central character back in time… while never leaving the present day.

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Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish) is a successful writer, who has been asked to give the commencement speech at his former high school 20 years after he headed out of small-town America to make it big. But despite the passing of the decades, it seems that few things, including his perspective, have changed.

Hooking up with old pals, Big Girl (Sean Astin, as camp as a row of pink tents) and Josh Holloway’s entertainingly drug-addled tattoo artist, he heads back to his old room at mum and dad’s – still bearing all the trappings of the Eighties, from posters to a Rubik’s cube – where he also has to squeeze himself into clothes from the period, since his luggage has been lost en route.

This device, although slightly contrived, serves to thrust Henry into his past. His Dad still won’t lend him his car without a lecture, his old High School principal and teacher are still on his case and old flame Scarlet, who inspired his best-selling book – the unlikely titled How Lionel Got Me Laid – is still as desirable and seemingly unattainable as ever thanks to her marriage to a former school bully.

Director Michael Polish uses every trick in the book to evoke the Eighties, from the colour palette – drenched in the hot pinks and high shades of the period – to the choice of casting, which deliberately tries to put the audience in the same sort of timewarp as Henry. After all, can there be a more archetypal Eighties mum than ET’s Dee Wallace Stone, here playing Henry’s cocktail-tippling mother, or a more Eighties-linked dad than Family Ties’ Michael Gross to play his father? Throw in Eighties comedy staple Chevy Chase as the school headmaster and Winona Ryder as an ‘all grown up’ version of her Heathers’ character and the end result is smothered in irony.

This knowing cleverness, however, is a problem. While there is no denying that a post-modern examination of John Hughes’ high school conventions is interesting, there is an aloofness here which plays badly against the central will they/won't they romance. Where Hughes, for all his bubblegum sweet stickiness, gave us characters to connect with – a success shared with recent excellent homage to the Eighties, Bart Got A Room – Polish holds his characters’ emotions up to the light in a bid to make us examine them rather than feel them.

Hilary Duff as a high school teen with a crush on Henry aims to bring some comedy juice to the party, but as a woman in her 20s, she’s too old for the role, so it is left to the likes of Chase and Astin to provide most of the film’s best bits from the fringes.

Like the career and personal path of Henry, there is much here to find admirable but a whole lot less to genuinely like.

Reviewed on: 10 May 2009
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A man returns to his old high school and finds its as though he never left.
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Director: Michael Polish

Writer: Mark Polish

Starring: Mark Polish, Winona Ryder, Hilary Duff, Sean Astin, Josh Holloway, Michael Gross, Chevy Chase, Marc Blucas, Frances Conroy, Joanna Cassidy

Year: 2009

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2009

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If you like this, try:

Bart Got A Room