Reviewed at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
"That sucked," says Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish) about twenty minutes into Stay Cool, which is a funny coincidence, because I said the same thing when the movie ended an hour and a half later. This is the sixth film from the Polish brothers (Mark wrote and stars, Michael directs), whose earlier films include the odd and fascinating Twin Falls Idaho and the lovely Astronaut Farmer, so its poor quality is all the more surprising. According to imdb, it was shot back-to-back with their currently-unreleased fifth film, Manure; I'm not sure if they were just worn out from finishing another picture, but however you slice it, I think they gave that title to the wrong movie.
Stay Cool (not to be confused with the unfortunate Elmore Leonard sequel Be Cool) concerns Henry, a New York City writer who returns to his home town to give the commencement speech at his high school. He's there for a week or two, apparently, so he stays with his parents in his old room, which has apparently gone untouched since the late 1980s. One of the few comic conceits that consistently plays is the idea that he's living like a teenager again--borrowing Dad's car, being embarrassed by his parents picking up during phone calls, suffering through awkward dinners with his folks ("How was school today?" "I gotta go do my homework"), and so on.
Flipping though his yearbook, Henry sees the photo of his senior year crush, Scarlet Smith (Winona Ryder), and decides to give her a call. As luck would have it, she's going through a messy divorce with her ex-jock (now football coach) high school boyfriend, so after a rough start, she's receptive to Henry--though the screenplay cops out when they have their vital first phone call, fading their voices and bringing up music for a "talking on the phone montage" before they've done much more than say hello. They connected, folks, really. Trust us on this.
At any rate, their relationship is the primary thrust of the movie, and while Polish and Ryder are likable enough (though we are getting pretty much the same performance out of her in every film these days), much of their dialogue is tepid and clunky--particularly when they hit the inevitable bumps in the road. She complains that she feels trapped in their town, and he responds, "You're not trapped. People in the World Trade Center were trapped!"--a line that didn't go over terribly well in with the Tribeca crowd.
The film's worst element, far and away, is the inclusion of Henry's two best high school buddies. Sean Astin plays a mincing, preening, hairdressing, catty gay friend who calls himself "Big Girl", while Josh Holloway is a mulletted, bearded tattoo artist. Together, they inspire speculation as to whether they made a wager to see who could give the worst performance, in which case, Astin is the big winner--it's a horrifying piece of work. But Polish's script doesn't help; these friends are like sitcom caricatures, flat and underdeveloped, ideas instead of people. Their interactions are forced (only in a screenplay would these three people ever be friends) their dialogue is atrocious, the laugh lines land with a loud thud, and the scene late in the film where they sing Kenny Loggins' "This Is It" at an IHOP is so painful, I wanted to crawl under my seat.
The brothers' decision to fill out the supporting roles with 80s icons is better in theory than in execution; Dee Wallace isn't bad as his mom, but Michael Gross is way over the top as his dad, and Chevy Chase... well, his work here is unfortunate. Much to my shock, the one supporting performance that really sings is that of Hilary Duff, who plays a high school senior with a crush on Henry (nice when you can write yourself a role where both Winona Ryder and Hilary Duff want to get in your pants) who talks him into taking her to the prom. Duff is a bubbly, zippy force of life, and the movie invariably perks up when she slinks into it. Frankly, you know you're movie is in trouble when the secondary romance is more interesting than the primary one; there's a whole other, better movie hinted at when he tells her, sadly, "you haven't even been through your Led Zeppelin phase," especially if she had a less predictable response.
Polish narrates much of the story, with excerpts from his book serving as some kind of counterpoint to the action, but that device is disastrous; the trouble with screenplays about prose writers is that most screenwriters aren't very good prose writers themselves. When Henry reads his commencement speech at the end, no one seems to notice that he's a pretty pedestrian essayist, spouting the kind of limp aphorisms that are more likely to be heard from the class valedictorian. Not to worry, though--there's still twelve more endings to go, as the movie crawls on and on and on to more fake-outs and manufactured crisis and tops it all off with, seriously, outtakes under the ending credits. Let it be decreed: No movie may end with outtakes unless it is a late-90s Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey comedy, or includes the words "Cannonball" and "Run" in its title. Otherwise, keep 'em in your pants, people--that's what DVD is for.
Stay Cool has some good ideas, to be sure. But the characters are poorly developed and the dialogue is terrible; it plays like a first draft that's in dire need of a rewrite. The Polish brothers have made good movies before, and I have no doubt that they will again. But this time, they've made a very bad film.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.