Movies are more transporting when you're young. Kids are willing to allow their imaginations to accept the visions of people and other worlds that filmmakers dream up, and thus, the films are more impactful. Some of that goes away when kids turn into teenagers, but there's an angle that even 15 and 16-year-olds will allow themselves to believe whatever they want: themselves. To me, this explains why teen romantic comedies of all types tend to occupy that perfect sweet spot of nostalgia that favorites seen as a child or an adult can't quite match. Plain Clothes is a decent teen romantic action comedy from the late 1980s, but even though the most memorable thing about it is the laundry list of talent involved with it, I'm sure plenty of people would single it out as one of their favorites.
Arliss Howard plays Nick, a 24-year-old police officer who can plausibly pass as five years younger and therefore finds himself saddled with cases that involve kids and teens. The only problem: he hates kids. Things only get worse when his younger brother Matt (Loren Dean) is accused of murdering one of his high school teachers. When one of the other officers tries to shut the case without proper investigation, Nick ends up suspended from the force, but with the help of his partner, Ed (Seymour Cassel), Nick sneaks into his brother's high school as a student to try and ferret out the culprits. Prime possibilities include big bully on campus Kyle Kerns (Peter Dobson), a weaselly mystery man carrying an inhaler (Harry Shearer), and the coach making secret plans with him (Jackie Gayle).
Directed by Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl) from a screenplay by Scott Frank (Out of Sight), Plain Clothes lives up to its title in tone and style. Coolidge is a fine director, but she doesn't make much of an effort to turn the film into anything specific. Frank's script has elements of a crime thriller, a romance, a comedy, a teen film, and a mystery, but Coolidge never really decides to push the film decisively in any one of those particular directions. The result is a movie that has plenty of strong moments, but the viewer is left waiting for an imaginary tonal shoe to drop. The funny moments are less funny (is it okay to laugh?), the mystery is less engaging (is this meant to be taken seriously?), etc. (Plain Clothes also has me wondering if there are any non-Hughes '80s teen movies that don't feel like half the jokes are directed at '80s teen movies.)
On the other hand, a great cast goes a long way, and Plain Clothes has a particularly impressive ensemble. Arliss Howard is a strong choice for the lead; even though he's forced to straddle the movie's tonal canyon, he executes both sides of the performance very well. A scene where he reads an E.E. Cummings poem in class to illustrate metaphor is one of the movie's finest moments, balancing the sensuous nature of the poem with the comedy of his delivery, designed to wink at the teacher, Ms. Torrence (Suzy Amis). Diane Ladd plays an unsually uptight secretary who suspects something is up with "Nick Springsteen" and his perpetually missing transcript, imbuing what could be a much simpler character with all sorts of interesting shades solely through her offbeat execution of the script. Scenes in which Ed is forced to pose as Nick's father feel like a comic opportunity that should've been exploited even further, and Dobson is wonderfully slimy as the bully. George Wendt, Abe Vigoda, Reginald VelJohnson, Larry Pine, Dean and Shearer round out the supporting players.
The investigation of the mystery is pushed out slightly by a knockout student (Alexandra Powers) with an obvious crush on Nick, which is a bit of a disappointment; more of the mystery would've helped give the film a bit more definition. There's also at least one rote bit during the finale involving a vicious dog that feels lifted right out of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Still, despite never really settling down, Plain Clothes is an easy, entertaining watch. The spectrum of '80s teen comedy is wide and varied, and Plain Clothes only sits slightly above the middle, but catching up with the movie again 25 years after its release shouldn't embarrass anyone who remembers it as a personal favorite.
Plain Clothes gets simple but really visually pleasing artwork courtesy of Olive. The original poster is spruced up a little bit to strengthen the aqua green lockers, with golden yellow text providing a nice contrast, and the font seems appropriately '80s. The disc comes in a slightly boxy Blu-Ray case with the printed logo at the top instead of the foil stamped logo, and a little cardboard booklet advertising other Olive releases is included in the case.
The Video and Audio
Olive Films' 1080p 1.78:1 AVC earns a B on the academic scale, with any fault in performance stemming from the elements available to Olive and not their technical efforts on the disc. Compared to Fire With Fire, another Paramount-to-Olive Blu-Ray I reviewed, Plain Clothes doesn't look quite as impressive, with a thick grain structure and softer appearance taking away a chunk of the dimensionality. Colors and contrast fluxuate a little, appearing fairly rich in some scenes and a touch washed out in others. However, given this is the first time the movie has been released on disc -- replacing a 15-year-old VHS tape -- fans should still be thrilled with this very film-like presentation.
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is more like a strong C. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are so clearly separated from one another that it's almost distracting; any instances of ADR or looping are really apparent (and there are plenty -- almost 70% of Robert Stack's role in the movie is comments from off-screen). Still, the clarity of all three elements is impressive, especially the dialogue. Gunshots are a little low and unimpressive, but crowd material is strong. No subtitles or captions are provided.
Olive offers one extra: a newly-recorded audio commentary by director Martha Cooldige. This is an okay track, with Coolidge reminiscing about working with her incredible cast, including the few non-professionals from the area, shooting in Seattle (a fact that is strangely unclear from the film itself), and other trivia. She has a tendency to explain plot elements that are a little obvious, and she has a strong case of "everyone was great to work with / everyone is wonderful" disease, but hey, it's something. It's only too bad that Howard or Frank weren't available to join her.
Again, the last time this movie was available on home video was 15 years ago. Anyone who's been waiting that entire time for a copy of their very own shouldn't hesitate to pick this one up. For the majority, however, it's a rental,
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