So I’m about thirteen or fourteen and my dad’s in the den watching a movie during the middle of the day, which he only did if he’d fallen asleep watching it the previous night and had to return the tape to the video store so he wouldn’t get charged a late fee. I walk into the room and he’s laughing at a scene where Shelley Long is serving Jamie Gertz some really disgusting-looking thing called “jellyfish salad.” He keeps laughing and talking about how hilarious Shelley Long is, something I agree with it because by that time I had seen the majority of the Diane episodes of Cheers, so I stick around and finish the film.
That is my Don’t Tell Her It’s Me origin story, and while I have no substantiated research to back up this claim, I bet that if you were to talk to a number of people, they would have a similar story because while this movie bombed at the box office in 1990, I’ve run into quite a number of people who have seen it. In fact, just as I finished streaming this on Amazon Prime, my wife asked what I had been watching and when I said “This movie with Steve Guttenberg and Shelley Long”, she replied, “Is that the one where he had cancer and became a buff dude? I’ve seen that!”
I don’t know if I could better sum up the premise of the film, but I will go slightly more in depth. Based on the novel The Boyfriend School (and currently streaming under that title), Guttenberg plays Gus Kubicek, a cartoonist who has just finished treatment for cancer. He’s bloated and bald as a result adn is wallowing in depression. His sister, Lizzie (Long), who is the alter ego of the best-selling romance novelist Vivian Leroux*, decides that she’s going to cheer him up by finding him a woman. Enter Emily Pear (Jami Gertz), a journalist, who after she interviews Lizzie at a romance fan convention (yes, there’s a rom-con in the rom-com) becomes the woman Lizzie’s going to set up with Gus. Emily kind of sort of has a fiance, Trout (Kyle MacLachlan), but Lizzie’s a professional at meddling in others’ lives as much as she is at writing romance.
The setup doesn’t go well. Emily vomits up the jellyfish salad I mentioned in my intro and while she thinks Gus is nice, she isn’t attracted to him at all. This causes Lizzie to take drastic measures. She helps Gus get in shape and then creates an alter ego for him–Lobo, a New Zealand biker who “hunts alone”. Lobo and Gertz meet at a gas station where the two of them accidentally wind up foiling an armed robbery.
Naturally, Emily falls for Gus’ bad boy alter ego and as it is with comedies like this, things get complicated. Gus is reluctant to keep things going because Emily has fallen for Lobo and she even breaks up with Trout (who was cheating on her anyway with their co-worker, Mandy, played by a twenty-year-old Madchen Amick). Eventually, the entire thing comes crashing down, but because this is a romantic comedy from 1990, Emily realizes that she actually was in love with Gus.
If I’m thinking with my modern sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The entire plot centers around deceiving a woman for the sake of romance and/or sex. Even with my writer’s sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The characters are pretty formulaic–Gertz is the typical “mess” woman character, Gus is the down-on-his-luck nice guy, Trout is a PG version of MacLachlan’s sleazy Showgirls character, and Long is kooky–and the plot resolves itself so quickly I had to rewind it in my head. Plus, this came out right around the time of When Harry Met Sally, a movie that is the golden standard for modern romantic comedies.
The movie, though, works because of the actors’ performances. Shelley Long dials up the kookiness but gives Lizzie depth. Guttenberg is surprisingly appealing and it reminded me why he was a pretty big star in the late 1980s. I mean, the guy was not just in the Police Academy movies and the first Short Circuit film, but had bona-fide box office hits in Cocoon and Three Men and a Baby (and their sequels). I’d even posit that his career at that point mirrors Tom Hanks’, but the Nineties would take both actors in very different directions. And while my favorite Jami Gertz film is The Lost Boys, she’s making a pretty good effort to step out of the teen flick role and into something a little more adult.
This is, at best, a piece of its time, and a reminder of the random movies you’d come across while flipping channels or at the video store when you’d watched everything else. And yet, even watching this for the first time in nearly 30 years, I found this charming and remembered why I liked it when I first saw it in junior high. Yes, the Lobo deception is cringeworthy, but it’s more As You Like It or Twelfth Night than it is Revenge of the Nerds, and when I was that age I spent a lot of time wondering if any girl was going to like me. Gus Kubicek is an adult Ronald Miller from Can’t Buy Me Love, the type of guy who I identified with and even rooted for even when he made boneheaded decisions**. And even if I never rode a motorcycle and got an epic mullet (seriously, the Guttenmullet is insane), I can still appreciate any movie that gives down-on-their-luck guys a chance no matter how crazy the idea.
*Btw, props to … uh, the props department on this movie. At one point, Lizzie gives Emily paperbacks of all of her books. I noticed that they were all “published” by Avon Books, which was a huge historical romance publisher–and incidentally, the publishing company I interned for in 1998.
**I guess I have to clarify that I don’t approve of what are now considered cringey or even gross storylines like this, but I will say that I understand the mentality of male characters like this, and a lot of pretty awful male behavior. In 2020, it’s grown into a “know the enemy” thing on my part, and I probably can write an essay about it but that’s not the type of thing anyone wants to read.