So I’m watching Lucas last night …
I guess I have to justify why I’m watching a Corey Haim movie from 1986? It had been in my Netflix DVD queue and therefore part of my “uncollecting” list. Oh, and I guess I should also say that I’m going to talk about the ending of the film here, so here’s a spoiler alert for a Corey Haim movie from 1986.
So I’m watching Lucas last night and I get to the end, which I had completely misremembered from when it first came out. I was pretty sure that the title character (played by Corey Haim) went out for the football team, got put in the game, and was killed as a result. I am also now pretty sure that I never actually watched the entire movie when it was released on video or aired on TV back in the late 1980s and was simply relying on a friend giving me the wrong information, but I kind of wonder if that would have been an improvement on what I actually watched.
You know, that sounds so much crueler when I read it than it did in my head. No, I don’t want a pipsqueaky kid to get crushed to death by a bunch of twentysomethings who are playing high schoolers. But the ending did bother the hell out of me because of the way it adds another item to the pile of conformity glorification and popularity validation that is rampant in Eighties teen movies.
The plot of Lucas is this: Lucas is a scrawny fourteen-year-old boy who is at least one year ahead academically because he’s incredibly smart. He’s also a nerdy kid who loves insects (a running thread is his fascination with the 17-year cicadas) and because of that is mercilessly teased by the jocks at school. To an epic degree. There’s only one, Cappie (Charlie Sheen)*, who is not only not a complete asshole to him but actually seems to genuinely like him. At the beginning of the film, Lucas meets Maggie (Kerri Green) and they become very close friends, but things get complicated when it’s obvious that he’s fallen in love with her and she doesn’t think of him that way. Moreover, she and Cappie fall for one another**. To show Maggie how tough he is, Lucas goes out for the football team and despite being told he can’t play by both the coach and the school principal, forces his way onto the field for a few plays.
It’s these few plays and their aftermath that make up the climax of the film. After being knocked around by defensive linemen for a few downs, Lucas finds himself downfield and completely wide open. When the pass comes his way, he traps it, bobbles it, drops it, and when the other team recovers it and goes downfield, he attempts a tackle and winds up at the bottom of a pile-on. This knocks him completely unconscious and puts him in the hospital.***
The scene then shifts to the hospital where you see the majority of the football players and cheerleaders in the waiting room, but as the night goes on, just his friends are around. He finally wakes up when Maggie goes to see him, they reconcile, and when he returns to school, the jocks who beat him up have placed a varsity jacket in his locker and we get the slow clap to end all slow claps.
I mean, I don’t think there is a better slow clap in cinematic history. You have the one guy starting everything, everyone joining in, it getting faster, Lucas realizing that this is all for him and then a glorious freeze frame before the synth score of the end credits kicks in. It’s gloriously Eighties feel-good and even the Ronald Miller Redemption in Can’t Buy Me Love doesn’t top it.
The blond guy in the scene is named Bruno (of course his name is Bruno) and he’s played by Tom Hodges (whom I recognized as Rich, Jason Bateman’s friend on The Hogan Family, who is the subject of a very special episode about AIDS). Bruno’s been the main antagonist the entire movie (along with Jeremy Piven, who plays a similar bully sidekick in One Crazy Summer). And the fact that Bruno’s behind the varsity jacket in the locker? Well, it Means! SO! MUCH!
For years, two of the biggest mistakes in the John Hughes movie cycle**** were Allison’s being prettied up at the end of The Breakfast Club and Andie’s choosing Blaine over Duckie in Pretty in Pink.***** Both of these films seem to be about understanding the differences between us all and being proud of your own individuality. However, those particular scenes also send a message that what girls really want is for the popular boy to like them and give them the fairytale ending. Lucas is the “boy” equivalent because the nerdy boy fairytale ending is glory on the field, or in the case of The Breakfast Club, Emilio Estevez’s Andrew walking through the hallway with Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian and then mentoring him on the wrestling team******. Lucas may not get the girl,m but he certainly gets the glory.
Now, I realize that it’s unfair to measure a 34-year-old film by the more progressive cultural standards and views I hold today. I’ve complained about people doing this too much in cultural and literary criticism, because often works do need to be judged in their own context as well as the context of the current culture. But I taught for nine years years at a high school where one’s athletic prowess was the most valuable character trait and success on the field made him an untouchable deity in the eyes of the adults. Those same adults, by the way, would have fit in very well in the setting of this film, because they held so many of the views and values put forth by this film. And if I look at it within its own context, Lucas upholds the cultural values of the Reagan Eighties, which were very much a loving nostalgia for the Eisenhower Fifties but with a lot more T&A on our screens.
Compounding my frustration here is that Lucas is a character who is ascloseasthis to being precocious and unlikable and it’s only Corey Haim’s performance that makes us care about him. He presents this kid as someone who is still very innocent and immature and has been stomped on because of it. I wanted him to triumph in the end, but not like this. Instead, I was hoping that he would realize that: a) Maggie was genuinely his friend; b) Cappie thought of him like a little brother; c) he had a crew of friends; and d) one of those friends, Rina (played by Winona Ryder in her film debut), liked him the same way he liked Maggie. Yes, we get a) and b), but imagine how much better this would have been if after the football game, Bruno would have simply apologized for being an asshole, and Lucas could have walked off into the hallway with his friends, feeling way more confident about who he was instead of basking in symbolic gestures.
Yeah, I know that wouldn’t have happened in an Eighties movie, or at least one that was as mainstream as Lucas. We sort of get it in the 1995 movie Angus, but it’s not until the Freaks and Geeks episode “Carded and Discarded” that we see it happen in the Eighties. The plot of that episode is similar to Lucas up to a point: a pretty new transfer student named Maureen arrives at school, befriends the geeks, but as the episode goes on she begins spending more time with the popular crowd. The difference here is that whereas Lucas decides to try to be a sports hero, the guys realize the inevitability of Maureen’s popularity and decide to let her go. And yes, it’s not their decision to make, but it’s a wonderfully bittersweet moment of growth for those guys that I wish we would have gotten more of in the Eighties instead of movies proving to us that the jocks are essentially always right.
*I hear “Cappie” and I think of Louis Gossett Jr.’s character in Iron Eagle.
**Nowhere to put this bit of commentary/plot detail, but Cappie is dating Alise, who is played by Courtney Thorne-Smith. Maggie is never presented as nerdy, but Green’s being a redhead makes me wonder if the writer watched Sixteen Candles where Jake dumps Carolyn for Samantha and said, “Yeah, like that.”
***The IMDb trivia page for Lucas points out that this play is completely illegal and never should have happened. Prior to the Hail Mary pass, the quarterback passes Lucas the ball and Lucas pitches it back. That’s legal, but the subsequent pass downfield is not, plus Lucas was not checked in as an eligible receiver. Furthermore, when Lucas drops the ball, he never had control of it and therefore, it’s an incomplete pass and not a fumble. All this could have been solved by having the team run a flea flicker and letting the kid bobble the pass, control it, make a football move, and then fumble. Plus, he took his helmet off, which would have also blown the play dead. I mean, I never played football and even I know this.
****And I’m specifically referring to the time before we all turned around and realized the terrible message the Claire/Bender hookup sends and what an absolute dumpster fire Sixteen Candles is.
*****Compounding this is that ending was a reshoot. She originally ended up with Duckie and test audiences hated it.
******Yeah, the fact that Emilio Estevez is Charlie Sheen’s brother and they’re playing similar characters isn’t lost on me either.