A confession: I have seen "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" more times than any human ever should. I spent my freshman year in high school obsessed with the movie. I know it by rote.
All of this for a movie that is by all accounts not very good. Here is a film that finds not one director but two asking to be replaced by the "Alan Smithee" credit, the pseudonym granted by the Director's Guild to filmmakers who, for good reason, wish to hide from their work. Its tone is wildly inconsistent, careening from broad slapstick to small scale quirkiness to third-rate teen dramedy, often within the same scene, with little regard for consistency. Its jokes are cheap, its characters flat, its conflict uninspired. The whole thing played for a couple weeks in a handful of theaters before vanishing into the swamp of home video and cable reruns.
And yet it works well enough in pieces, here and there, sort of, almost, kinda, thanks mostly to a gung ho leading performance by Jon Cryer and a sweetheart supporting job from a crushworthy Viveka Davis. It's a movie that can be utterly cute when it wants to be. Problem is, it rarely wants to be.
"Morgan Stewart" finds Cryer as the titular character, the son of a wealthy Senator, who's spent most of his adolescence at various boarding schools, far from home; he even gets bumped from holiday celebrations so his parents (Nicholas Pryor and Lynn Redgrave) can campaign, or vacation in Europe, or whatever it is they do without their boy. Then comes December, and Morgan is summoned home - finally! - only to discover he's being used as part of a campaign gimmick to paint the Senator as a proud family man.
The script, from Ken Hixon and David N. Ticher, has little idea what to do with such a premise. And so it tries everything. The opening scenes feature screwball campus comedy with Morgan and pals pulling an elaborate prank on a preppie. Morgan's a horror movie fanatic, although such a point is often used merely as script filler; his character lacking the inspired over-the-top lunacy that fueled the similarly driven Chainsaw and Dave in "Summer School." Later scenes, at the Stewarts' D.C.-area mansion, involve crummy slapstick and sitcom plotting, as Morgan, inspired by "The Brady Bunch," sets out to impress the folks by waxing the floor, and look how wacky it is when the butler slips and falls, har har. The butler, by the way, is a Russian immigrant named Ivan (Saveli Kremarov, from "2010"), who's obsessed with American capitalism and who mangles the English language, because somebody thought it would be a hoot to include limp Yakov Smirnoff-inspired yuks.
There's also an attempt at political satire, but it's all vague and simple fluff along the lines of politicians doing anything to get elected. The filmmakers are either unwilling or unable to go for any real bite; while things like "family values" and names like "the Moral Majority" are mentioned in passing, we never get anything substantial, never find out a lick about the Senator's campaign platform or key issues. We learn the Senator is a Republican, but the script mainly opts to sidestep Reagan-eras values, choosing instead to lampoon wacky trends of the decade. (Mrs. Stewart, a controlling spouse arguably modeled on Nancy Reagan, is on a strict vegetarian kick - how nutty! - after visiting a "holistic manicurist.")
To best illustrate how little thought went into this chunk of the story, consider that in early December, we're told it's "early in the election" (to explain why so much election talk is being held a month after elections; even in the 80s, campaigns rambled on for over a year), but at the end of the film, only a few weeks have passed, yet we're told it's "late" in the election.
I'd chalk these sorts of gaffes to the fact that director Terry Winsor left somewhere during filming and was replaced by Paul Aaron. It's not clear who left when, or who shot what where; behind-the-scenes information on a film this under the radar remains limited to a hazy "there were production troubles." Both directors left unhappy with the final work (was there producer interference? or did they just think the script was that lousy?), both requesting the "Smithee" label. (This also explains such wild inconsistencies in tone, if only to a point.)
The plot finally settles, half-assedly, on Morgan's discovery that his dad's campaign manager (the great Paul Gleason, playing up his jerk-schmuck persona) is planning to frame the Senator in an embezzlement scandal. It's all sketchy - something to do with a stack of cash and some donation receipts - that's basically used as a sub-par MacGuffin to kick start a zany chase sequence that ends with a Jeep driving into a fountain, because, as the movie establishes in an earlier scene, people falling into fountains are naturally funny.
Why do filmmakers think this? Why is "falling into water" used whenever writers run out of actual jokes? I've never known anyone to laugh at such a visual joke, and yet here the joke comes, again and again, actors asked to flail their arms and scream as they plummet into the drink.
That's all too often the sort of comedy "Morgan Stewart" is content to be: characters slipping on a waxed floor, kooky Russians making KGB jokes, dimwitted preppies and military school goons getting knocked on their asses.
But there, peeking out every now and then, just when it's needed, the movie shows some heart. While "Morgan Stewart" fails miserably at larger comedy, it succeeds at the small-scale stuff. Watch how Pryor works his character's relationship with his son - there's a gentleness there, a father realizing just how many years he's missed with his boy. He's a father amused, not perturbed, by his son's adolescent antics. It might be accidental (the writers were perhaps more worried about ensuring the Senator doesn't look corrupt than with presenting complex family dynamics), but it still works in giving some much-needed depth to some otherwise flat characters. There's a great throwaway scene with Morgan and his dad at a fast food joint, and the way the two characters - and their performers - click, you get a sense of what this movie could've been.
Pryor's performance is a delight here, and throughout the film, but then, he's allowed to be; Redgrave, stuck in a more obvious strict-mother role, is forced to sneak in her subtleties, and is often left with too little to do. She's clever enough to survive such a character, mainly by refusing to overplay scenes that demand such cheesiness. I wouldn't say it works, but at least she never drowns under all that mediocre material.
Then there's Davis, who makes a terrific love interest as Emily, the quirky charmer with her own horror flick obsession. You can see the writers trying too hard here: Emily's family is close-knit, contrasting Morgan's own home woes, but they're also flaky types who debate classic slasher movies for fun while a senile grandma "has a thing about peas." And Emily's own conflicts with Morgan are tossed in out of obligation and too flimsy to ever work. But Davis, all bubbly smile and unending charisma, makes it all sing. How could you not walk away from this film with a giant crush on this gal?
And while Emily's B-movie fixation is little more than a lazy way to give the characters some easy time-filler dialogue ("you like George Romero, too?!"), the actors are able to turn this into a clever bit of character shorthand; as Morgan and Emily squee over their favorite flicks, we can see the two falling instantly in love. Cryer and Davis have sparkles in their eyes here. If only more of the movie could be like this, then we'd have something.
As for Cryer, he's usually able to get the best of the material, no matter how crummy. A few scenes of his really dazzle, like the one where, coming home after meeting Emily, he does a little song and dance routine for himself (and tossing in a few seemingly ad libbed asides, all very funny). His energy is palpable, perhaps a result of a few very busy years in his early career that found him searching for a hit. (He would find only one - "Pretty in Pink" - while suffering a long, long string of flops.)
All those production troubles would leave the movie sitting on a shelf for a year or so, until the distributor finally managed to chuck it into a few hundred theaters in early 1987, hoping audiences might see this as a sort of John Hughes-ish romp, what with the "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"-esque title and the guy who was Duckie. (The name "Duckie" was even name-checked on the poster.) It didn't work, the movie tanked, and everyone who made it hopes everyone else would quickly forget all about it.
Except, well, I love to remember it. All these years, I've kept a soft spot in my heart for it, in all its clumsy glory. Could I ever quite call it a good movie? Not really, not entirely. But I'll always love that little dance Jon Cryer does.
After years (decades, almost!) of being unavailable in the States, Lionsgate finally unleashes "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home" on DVD under their "Lost Collection" label. The series' slogan - "The Best Movies You Totally Forgot About" - leaves much up for debate from several angles, and the packaging is a tad annoying, featuring a cartoon of some scruffy guy pointing to the movie poster and wearing a "Viva Duckie" t-shirt while a thought balloon reads "Jon Cryer = Original Hipster." Also, the back of the box features a promo still from Cryer's "Hiding Out." And the less said about the atrocious "let's try to be tacky, you know, like the 80s!" menu, the better.
Still, it's nice to finally retire the worn out VHS.
Video & Audio
And now the bad news: the film is offered only in a 1.33:1 transfer. I haven't seen the Region 4 DVD of this title (released under the generic international title "Homefront"), which offers an anamorphic widescreen print, so I can't compare to see if this is an open matte or pan & scan job. But my best guess is that this is open matte, as it never looks cramped, has plenty of space at the top and bottom of the frame, and zooms quite nicely on my set without a single problem. Still, who's putting out crummy full screen transfers these days? Was an open matte version the only thing Lionsgate could bother finding? (Answer: probably, yeah.)
All that said, the movie looks vastly improved from my old VHS copy (and the version I taped off of cable before that). The transfer is bright and surprisingly crisp, with several shots revealing a great range of color. Grain is minimal, another nice surprise.
The Dolby soundtrack is labeled as 5.1 surround, but it sounds like plain ol' stereo, with all the action kept squarely up front. It's all rest is sharp and clear, though, with a rich sound for all that 80s music. (The Silencers! Chris Isaak! The Silencers again!) Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Like all of the "Lost Collection" titles, this one comes with a crappy Trivia Track subtitle option that's supposed to offer interesting info tidbits throughout, but winds up a bust. Text remains on screen for an absurd amount of time, mainly taking the form of dopey multiple-choice trivia questions. (As Morgan watches "The Brady Bunch," the text asks "What was the name of the Brady's housekeeper?") Other times, rather than just telling us information, we're asked true-false questions, which somehow makes the information less interesting. The biggest problem is that the subtitles average once about every five minutes; by the time the next one pops up, I'd forgotten the track was still on.
The film's trailer is included (full screen, natch), but it's not the horrible-but-lengthy theatrical preview you can find on YouTube - it's a thirty second promo produced for VHS. (Now that's pure 80s.)
A handful of promos for other Lionsgate DVDs round out the set; these same promos also play as the disc loads.
I can live with the open matte transfer, especially since the print looks pretty good. And I can live with the almost-barebones presentation, since the asking price is low enough. But could I still full-on recommend the movie itself, despite the ridiculous amount of leeway I've given it in the name of nostalgia? Not really. Sorry, Morgan. Rent It.