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.
The Video and Audio
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.