Editor’s Note: RETROGRADING is the latest series by DoomRocket newcomer Matt Fleming. On a bi-weekly basis, Matt will provide what he calls, “an adult perspective on childhood favorites of the 80s and 90s.”
As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching comedies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist I come outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “But Mom, Back to the Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Prologue: Frankenstein’s Sexy Self-Esteem Monster
Sometimes, classic narrative devices become so diluted with time that they lose their author’s intent and become plot drivers, like Alfred Hitchcock’s signature MacGuffin, and serve only to retell the same story. In the mid to late 1980s (bleeding into early ‘90s), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was reinterpreted first by 1985’s Weird Science. When Gary and Wyatt use the powers of a “computer” and lightning, they create a sentient Kelly LeBrock who learns them the “lay” of the land with the ladies. The unpopular, misunderstood, the downtrodden misfit youth always seems to need the assistance of a beautiful woman in order to work out their awkwardness. The questions of humanity, agency, and monstrosity are glossed over in an effort to move the common “nerds try to be cool, hijinks” ‘80s narrative. Marrying Shelley’s creation motifs with the Greek muse mythology, Weird Science kickstarts a regrettably repetitive filmic device: the anthropomorphic unhuman. This disassociated humanistic placeholder became a fixture in comedies for about six years, spanning the corporeal characters of dummies, corpses, and even military-grade robots.
Which leads me to the real subject: 1987’s Mannequin.
Okay. We begin with an ancient Egyptian setting – very 80s – lots of hieroglyphs and stone-foam set, and our heroine is hiding out as a mummy in a tomb, evading her arranged marriage to a camel dung salesman (“fuel merchant;” read: racist). The incredibly attractive Canadian Kim Cattrall is Emmy Heshire, and she is pissed at her mom. Stereotypically feminist, she cannot abide her mother, and she is willing to appeal to the Gods in order to pursue her dreams of independence and, um, flight. She just wants to be free, MOM! Her mother is resigned to “the times we live in,” which is just another era where women can’t choose love or career and all of that. And her mom is a total low-rent Cleopatra. Thankfully, to move the plot into the actual movie, a earthquake-thunderstorm occurs, for like a second, and to her mother’s dismay, Emmy is swept away in a cloud of sand. Queue Belinda Carlisle doing her best Bangles impression over an animated opening credits scene that is actually quite delightful. Animals, history, cartoon noises. Belinda Carlisle doing her version of “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Delightful.
Oh, poor Jonathan Switcher, aspiring sculptor. Chained by his artistic desires and Andrew-McCarthy-like good looks, Jonathan begins this tale as a mannequin sculptor. He affably finishes his crowning achievement (foreshadowing: it’s Emmy), and his boss fires him for taking too fucking long to make a dummy. (Note: most relic-based body-switching mumbo-jumbo from the ‘80s is never credibly explained, so who knows why Emmy chose to reincarnate into this specific vessel.)
After a series of embarrassing turns at pseudo-artistic day jobs like making balloon animals and pizza, his motorcycle breaks down, and while walking it to his presumed home the dejected hero catches a glimpse of his masterpiece in the storefront of the Prince and Co. department store.
“You know, you’re the first thing I’ve created in a really long time that made me feel like an artist.”
Foreshadowing: that sounds creepy. Jonathan already wants to bang this mannequin.
SO… the next day, Jonathan is totally not stalking a dummy and happens to be waiting for Prince and Co. to open, when he meets the precocious owner, sweet old Estelle Getty (Sophia on Golden Girls, Mom in Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot). After saving Estelle Getty from a falling sign, he is promised a position at the fledgling store. Jonathan’s hiring is met with derision by store manager, Richards (James Spader, slick-haired worm), who is working in clandestine for rival store, Illustra, toward devious ends (re: drive down business so they can buy the company on the cheap). Jonathan is hired as a stock boy, and while fawning over his wooden dream girl he strikes up a friendship with the faaaabulously flamboyant merchandiser Hollywood Montrose (the recently deceased Meshach Taylor, who eats every scene like lunch). Hollywood is immediately the most likeable character, barely better than Estelle Getty, because of his outfits and yelps.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll spare some details about the next section: Emmy comes to life while alone with Jonathan, thanking him as her re-creator and begging him to help her catch up on lost time. Most people in this situation would be called “delusional” or “psychotic,” but this is a movie, after all. Emmy helps the enamored Jonathan create a great window display that attracts customers. He’s promoted, and they continue the hot streak, all while canoodling through the store after hours while Felix the night guard, played by the legendary G.W. Bailey (Capt. Harris, the only Police Academy antagonist that matters) sleuths out Jonathan’s secret.
Eventually, Prince and Co. is doing better than ever, so Illustra sends spies to the store (conveniently, Jonathan’s ex, Roxie, works for Illustra. She is joined by a creepy, Latin pervert stereotype named Armand. I think they just needed more characters than the other seven already actively participating in the film) in an attempt to blackmail Jonathan… I think. They do take pictures of him almost banging a mannequin, I guess. Estelle Getty doesn’t care, and once she finds out that Felix and Richards were in cahoots, she fires them. Jonathan takes Emmy out on the town, where the jokes are all based on everyone else seeing a man take a mannequin on a fancy date. Unfortunately, Illustra’s newest spies (Bailey and Spader make such a duo!) are on their tail. They just know that Jonathan can’t do it without his special slab of sexy wood, so they break in and steal all the female mannequins from the store, because they can’t tell any of them apart, y’know. This event was also preceded by Jonathan and Emmy actually having sex.
The last twenty minutes or so are predictable. Jonathan confronts Illustra, who just want to give him a job, but then Roxie gets jealous of his new girlfriend and decides to throw all the mannequins into a woodchipper via a villainously slow conveyor. An unusually drawn-out chase ensues through Illustra, featuring Felix as the Captain of the Keystone Security guards. Also, Jonathan is definitely wearing bowling shoes during this chase, explaining why he slides around so much. Very distracting. Anyway, Roxie’s loading up the mannequin-murder-machine (patent pending), and Jonathan seems to be caught finally, when who comes to the rescue: Hollywood Fucking Montrose. Hollywood hoses down the mall cops, Roxie gets a pile of shredded dummy detritus dumped atop her, and Jonathan makes the last minute save of his true love. The creepy janitor (who made a pants-down entrance moments before) can see that Emmy is alive, so I guess saving her made her a real girl again. The creepy janitor searches the debris for a mannequin to be his girlfriend, and finds Roxie. Kinda rapey moment. But then Felix and Richards get arrested and the lonely janitor searches on for meaning in a pile of shredded paper, knowing he’ll never find love.
Oh, of course, Jonathan and Emmy get married in a window display while Hollywood and Estelle Getty serve as wedding party. Cue Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us.” Wait, I guess now you don’t really have to watch this movie. But still do, please.
Part Two: the cast, or “What’s Left of the ‘80s.”.
It’s difficult to discuss Mannequin without first examining the most lauded ensemble of ‘80s actors, The Brat Pack. Traditionally consisting of the primary cast members of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, this bunch of pretty in pinks and their secondary players began to splinter out of the John Hughes scene around ‘86, all in an attempt to make it as the big face of new-Reagan Hollywood. Four of the five male members of The Brat Pack had the advantage of looking the part of young, traditional Hollywood leading men. In the case of Mannequin, we examine the genesis of the sullen, befuddled Andrew McCarthy as leading man.
Andrew McCarthy plays charmingly befuddled like an American Hugh Grant. Of his Brat Pack Peers, only young Anthony Michael Hall matches him in comedic charisma. The opening sequences of Mannequin (post opening credit Egypt-Bangles-fest) adequately portray his misunderstood artist appeal, although it’s upsetting to think that someone is so self-obsessed that they can’t just make pizzas. McCarthy does most of his acting with his eyes, and by extension his brow, occasionally flashing a smile. Someone was trying to make him the next John Cusack. Someone failed.
Alternately, Kim Cattrall is a breeze of whimsy throughout the movie. Her turn as lawyer-turned-love-interest in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was just a preview of the sass and vulnerability this Canadian bombshell could bring to the screen. Emmy’s moxie is matched by her wacky, out of the box thinking, and during the sequences where she displays her seductive wiles, she is a knockout. Unfortunately, about a third of her scenes feature her wooden facsimile, which does about as good a job as Kristen Stewart in the Twilight series. Unfortunately, Hollywood (the system, not the window-dresser) misused her in the ensuing decade, but she had a lovely renaissance as the only reason I ever watched “Sex and the City” on HBO.
The supporting cast serves their purposes as well as could be asked, I suppose. James Spader is both sleazy and pencil-necked, and seems to be channeling Martin Short’s Ed Grimley character in every mannerism. Thankfully, he didn’t stick with that shtick, and has had a reasonable career, in spurts. Comically underrated is Meshach Taylor, best known as “not the woman” on Delta Burke’s sitcom, “Designing Women.” As an adult, I have mixed feelings about the homosexual stereotype in film, which is to say I feel bad that I enjoyed this performance so much. While portraying over the top, Hollywood’s sexuality never feels out of place in this bizarre universe, but it’s still pretty weird to see such a character with 21st century eyes. Despite the negatives, Taylor gives his all, and rarely cheapens his character’s sexuality for the sake of parody. But it is still way over the top.*
G.W. Bailey submits a tour de force as mall cop/psychopath Felix Maxwell, which I’d imagine was a screen test for his return to the fledgling Police Academy franchise. He delivers the single best line of the film, (“tonight we nail that little fart blossom!”) and gives an ironic, Shakespearean-level perspective that the audience can relate to. (Which is to say that he knows Emmy’s a mannequin and nobody believes him, but we know he’s not crazy and we’re not telling!) Bailey is a master of facial expression, outbursts of anger, and hyperbolic ineptitude. In the Academy series, we root against him because he’s a dick to Steve Guttenberg et al, but in Mannequin, his character appears slightly tragic, though still kind of a dick. He’s just a mall cop doing his job, and his guard dogs (“Rocky” at Prince and Co., “Terminator” at Illustra), his only real friends, get beat up by inanimate objects or run away from him, terrified. G.W. Bailey is one of the few true bright spots of this film.
Aside from Estelle Getty, the rest of the cast is just filler. As sweet and charming as she is, even ol’ Sophia is just a placeholder as the batty old woman kinda trying to run a department store. I think Roxie (Carole Davis, who would go on to director Michael Gottlieb’s next masterpiece, Shrimp on the Barbie) had one funny line when creepy Armand fell down a flight of stairs. Otherwise, some of the funnier stuff comes in the “Jonathan can’t hold a job” montage at the film’s start.
Part three: Conclusions, or “Let’s Make a Rom Com, Dummy!”
Flimsy premises have rarely prevented bad movies from being made; B-and lower-grade movies are held together by the threadbare string of impossibility and pure badness. However, hubristic ‘80s writers and producers must have seen Mannequin for what it really was: a wacky excuse for two young pretty people to make out over a pop soundtrack. That’s where the movie succeeds the most. The entire department store merchandising battle sounds ludicrous by today’s standards, but in my childhood, I really thought this was how business and high fashion competition worked. Kim Cattrall made me look at department store dummies differently. Even as a kid, I was the janitor in the pile of shredded paper, desperately wanting to be Andrew McCarthy.
Mannequin was a commercial hit, by mid-’80s standards, and it spawned the sequel Mannequin 2: On the Move. Shockingly, the sequel’s premise made more sense by the traditional fairy tale rulebook of magic and true love, but it ultimately stunk. The audience gets a game Stuart Pankin in exchange for Spader, and Taylor returns as Hollywood in the film’s only real connection to its predecessor. Unfortunately, Kristy Swanson delivers as wooden a performance as her stand in, and Terry “Bernie” Kiser wastes a career performance as a sadistic Germanic count, and On the Move collapses under its own absurdity.
Somehow, if the audience can briefly put aside some terribly dated homophobic stereotypes and suspend disbelief from about 50-feet above sea level, it can join the charming McCarthy and disarming Cattrall as they do the best they can at telling a dumb story about a reanimated Egyptian blonde and her boyfriend who can’t make a pizza as they fight the tyranny of tacky window displays. Best enjoyed with any friends born before the movie was made, or any friends in visual merchandising.
*Mannequin debuted number one at box offices the week it premiered. Number two? Sly Stallone’s Over the Top.
Next: Matt reviews Dan Aykroyd’s directorial debut, 1991’s Nothing But Trouble.