By Matt FlemingRETROGRADING is my attempt to parse the films of yesteryear, just to see if they hold their ground.

license-to-drive-movie-poster-1988-1020269834Prologue: “A Tale Of Two Coreys.”

Growing up in the 1980s meant witnessing a unique era in Hollywood, following the end of ‘70s realism and grit and paralleling the waning Cold War. Creative types in Hollywood, eager to repeat the successes of Star Wars and ET: The Extra Terrestrial, made a concerted effort to appeal to the youngsters of 1980s America. New young heartthrobs were spackled across teeny-bop magazine covers that spanned the aisle of every middle-American grocery or liquor store. Two of those faces became icons of teen cool, excess, and ultimately, tragedy. But, in those halcyon days, the cool far outweighed the sorrow.

Corey Feldman came around first in hundreds of commercials and bit television roles, before finding mainstream success in a series of teen horror-thriller-adventure movies. His performance as Mouth in 1985’s The Goonies exhibited a surprisingly wide range, and more dramatic fare (1986’s Stand By Me) hinted that he (along with his youthful contemporaries) might be the future of Hollywood. When auditioning for the role of Mouth, he beat a peppy, doe-eyed kid his same age, sharing the same name. Corey Haim had not seen as much work as his counterpart: in 1985 he landed the lead in the Stephen King adaptation Silver Bullet (in a time where Stephen King adaptations were a pretty big deal). After his turn as the titular Lucas, the high school loser who ultimately finds acceptance (*sigh*), he segued into the gothic teen vampire flick The Lost Boys (1987). Here he was united for the first time with his cinematic counterpart, Feldman, and their friendship became legend, defined by good times, substance abuse, and bad movies.

Their serendipitous union peaked in 1988 with License to Drive. As a suburban youth, there was no greater symbol of status and pseudo-adulthood than the driver’s license (and better yet, the actual car). Freedom from one’s prior generation, from the apron strings of the parents, clung so tightly to the acquisition of the singular ability to drive yourself (and your pals) to parties and other cool hangouts. I never attended any parties, nor other cool hangouts, but I remember the potential for such freedom. For me, the apex was probably just going to bowling alleys, Chinese restaurants, and record stores (where I got a poster signed by four of five members of Korn). License to Drive tries to encapsulate all of the hope of what this magical civic permit could provide a teenager, and it employs the two coolest dudes that 1988 had to offer.


Part One: The Plot, or “Baby, You Can Drive My Car.”

License to Drive begins with a very long (and stupid) dream sequence that places the protagonist Les (Haim) on a nightmare bus ride, which he struggles to escape, before awakening during his driver’s education class. His twin sister Natalie (Nina Siemaszko) berates her idiot sibling, who is clearly going to fail. The upcoming exam looms over the teens, while their home life is actually much more exciting. Their folks (incredibly Richard Masur and Carol Kane) are expecting a new child any day, and mom – in her prenatal state -has regressed to eating a mound of mashed potatoes and ketchup daily. Les ditches the fam to hit up a cool party with his best friend Dean (Feldman) and the other guy Charles (Michael Manasseri). His crush, Mercedes (a young Heather Graham) is fighting with her adult boyfriend, and uses Les as an excuse to ditch the dude. Les is awkward, and probably pops a nervous boner.

The driver’s exam comes the next day, and Les fails the computer test, but triggers a failure (because in 1988 a network of computers go down when you hit one of them). Because of this, he miraculously passes his road test (judged by the impeccable James Avery of The Prince of Bel Air), but is denied his license once the computers work again. He lies to his folks, is discovered, and is eventually grounded. When Mercedes calls him about their big date, he steals his granddad’s Cadillac (don’t ask) and takes her out on the town. She drinks a bottle of champagne, apparently falls in love, then passes out. He takes the car to Dean’s, they put her in the trunk, and they go try to pick up new girls. Hijinks ensue, resulting in a drunk driver stealing the Cadillac (and ruining it). Once they recover the car, they laugh off the whole night and Les faces the music. Except the movie isn’t over. His mom goes into labor, his dad flips out, Les has to drive the car to the hospital in reverse, and then it gets crushed by a falling I-beam. Basically, nothing makes any sense, Les gets forgiven because he learned how to drive, and the girl is totally clueless about spending a first date in the trunk of a Sedan DeVille.


Part Two: The Cast, or “Two Coreys Don’t Make A Right.”

License to Drive was the first vehicle (heh) to explore the friendship between “The Two Coreys,” as well as both actors’ follow up to The Lost Boys. Someone in a studio decided that Haim was the leading man, probably because sidekicks, like Feldman, always wear sunglasses. Haim attempts the “dweeb turned cool dude in Los Angeles,” but he never quite succeeds. Instead, his constantly gaping mouth and spastic speech create a fairly unlikable character in Les. He lies to everyone so he can illegally drive a technically stolen car to joyride with a drunk, underaged girl he just met. When she passes out, he takes his buddies to a place called Archie’s, where the female-to-Corey ratio is 30 to 1. Where the writers may have written “cool,” Haim delivers smarm.

His counterCorey™, Feldman, delivers the better performance. Dean wears shades, fixes the hood of a Cadillac, and single-handedly picks up three babes for his crew. His mullet is still growing in, but at a time when it was just considered long hair. I’ve always wondered why Feldman was always cast as the sidekick and Haim the loverboy, a trend that extends to their later duds Dream a Little Dream and its sequel. Feldman had good acting chops, strong experience, and he could breathe through his nose, all traits which eluded Haim. Although he is underused (especially in the slow first act), Feldman brings an energy that saves the duo’s joy ride.

The supporting cast reveals the hidden gem of a second, better movie within License to Drive. The family’s subplot feels like a treatment for a John Hughes movie that got misplaced in someone’s coke-laden El Camino, its pages later shuffled in with those of this sloppy premise. Richard Masur and Carol Kane are charming and dynamic, and so much of their subplot fills the emptiness of the Coreys’ vapid arc. I have begun to hypothesize that the film may have been about the family dynamic in an early draft, only to be rewritten to focus on the teens once two hot youngsters were cast. I’d like to see that movie.

The rest of the cast featured fresh faces that would achieve moderate success in future projects. The true breakout is Heather Graham, although her acting skills have not advanced too much further since she played Mercedes. In fact, her most charismatic moment occurs when she delivers a line from the drunk-trunk. However, she smiles her way through having to tongue-kiss a noticeably shorter Corey Haim, and that’s enough to deserve kudos. Nina Siemaszko (Les’ twin sister Natalie) is recognizable for her later role in 1994’s Airheads as the girl who falls in love with Adam Sandler. The Coreys’ third wheel, Charles, is played by Michael Manasseri, who I almost forgot played Wyatt in the TV adaptation of Weird Science (1994). In a very small but strange role, Grant Heslov (George Clooney’s writing partner) shows up as Natalie’s Marxist boyfriend, in another concurrent subplot involving arms protests. They really packed this 88 minutes.

Licence-to-Drive-Group-TowatchpilePart Three: Conclusions, or “Driving Miss Lazy.”

Ultimately License to Drive is an idle vehicle for two popular actors in their prime that misses the mark. Although Corey Feldman and Corey Haim were excellent in their own ‘80s hits, this movie manages to waste both actors potential while wasting a perfect Richard Masur/Carol Kane family film. The Two Coreys made more mistakes later, but this was the predecessor to their oblivion. Once thrust into the spotlight, neither proved capable of carrying a movie, even as a team. Feldman is still hanging around, and before Haim’s unfortunate early death, the two finally reunited in 2007 for their obligatory reality show, aptly titled “The Two Coreys.” Still, the magic they captured in the ‘80s had been depleted.

Despite Heather Graham’s effort, License to Drive is a pretty bad example of 1980’s suburban exploration. Every kid I grew up with was obsessed with obtaining that same freedom, but none so desperate as to go to such extreme lengths for such dull purposes. This movie had to add the best parts in reshoots (The drunk driver sequences and the second ending). I’m surprised it managed 90 minutes. Corey Feldman is enjoyable, but the movie is only worth its nostalgia at this point. Best watched with fans of ‘80s vampire movies, or friends who lost their driver’s license.

Passing Thoughts:

License to Drive excels with its car-themed soundtrack, featuring a droll cover of The Beatles “Drive My Car,” Pebbles’ singular hit “Mercedes Boy,” and the iconic “Get Out of My Dreams (Get Into My Car)” by Billy Ocean.

-In one of many instances of unreality, when Dean’s mom is dropping the guys at a party, a passing cool-guy ponders: “Hey dweebs, does Mommy hold your dicks when you pee?” Classic burn.

-Richard Masur is the most bipolar dad in movie history. He gets angry about as often as he forgives Les for no reason. He even opens a bottle of champagne to troll Les over his failure at the DMV.

-Big props to the late James Avery (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and his excellent turn as a disgruntled driver’s ed instructor.

-Someone at Disney dropped the ball on remaking this movie with Miley Cyrus before she went crazy. The movie begs for a Disney Channel reboot, and I’d be happy to pen the script.