I Saw A Film!
Another 80s classic I missed as a young man, returning to it now I was a bit surprised at how ridiculous the entire enterprise was. Bear with me here, it’s not just a matter of the gear and the lack of fashion, as Nerd is wont to mean (incidentally, it’s a term I never heard until I watched Happy Days in the 70s, it apparently originated from a Dr. Seuss book published in 1950). It’s the fact that our protagonists seem to arrive at college (Adam’s) in the midst of a semester (are the only students clearly moving in) and rather than arrive at an address are for unknown reasons forced to hike across campus hauling their trunk, causing accidents and hoots and hollers. And of course, after attracting the ire of the jocks who burn their frat house down, end up living in the gymnasium because the college is run by John Goodman, the coach, and the dean – together. Not only do our boys sleep in the gymnasium (much like ancient Greek students actually did) they take their courses there. They endure hideous violin practice. They put up with Booger picking boogers (Curtis Armstrong in another of his teen roles in his 30s). There is a Japanese Nerd, and while he’s obsessed with cameras, he’s not played too horribly, and a young black Nerd, who also is meant to be gay, but really just spends his time in spandex doing aerobics. There’s a bitty little nerd, and he’s just cute.
Soon the fellows manage to escape the gymnasium and with great effort and a montage, rebuild a dilapidated house. Simultaneously the Nerds are refused Greek status, and decide to align themselves with Lambda Lambda Lambda a college house that is apparently segregated and functionally the Black Panthers. Soon enough a weird bargain is struck, in which the authorities from the Lambda3 house will accept the Nerds if they manage to throw a successful party. Here’s where it starts to go off the rails.
A sorority of pretty ladies called “Pi” house decide to offer themselves as dates in weird robes with candles and song. They of course don’t show up to the party, and the Nerds vow a revenge. Meanwhile “Mu” house (another gaggle of ladies of much less lovely stature) do show up and while the Authorities of Lambda watch the proceedings the over tall and somewhat dowdy ladies from “Mu” gradually help festivities along once Booger pulls out some fat spliffs. And so, remarkably, a pot smoking party ensues and all is well. Which is frankly absurd. Animal House comes off as entirely believable in the context of this film.
Soon enough the Nerds outfit the Pi sorority with cameras and spy on the nude ladies. This is largely played off as cute, but in an age of concerns about surveillance and invasion of privacy it seems a bit of a lopsided outcome.
At the end of the party a bunch of hogs are released into the house causing mayhem. Upon exiting the nerds are faced with a flatbed truck of jocks singing a limerick insult and mooning them before driving off. This time the revenge is only putting camphor in the fellows’ jock straps.
The college then proceeds to have a fair, and several games which the Nerds manage to win through flat out cheating. A modified Javelin wins the Javelin throw, and illicit doping is used to counter the effects of alcohol on the beer and trike race. Fine. Whatever.
The finale, because the college has nothing better to do despite us being told they’re the best school for these nerds because of the computer science program (and yes there is a sequence in which Nerd number 1 impresses a young lady struggling with early 80s computer tech by having said tech do things it couldn’t do given the period. There were no keyable animations that could be produced on our old machines, in under an hour, despite them leaning on this gag in both this film and Pretty In Pink). Instead there’s a full on talent show in which the jocks do an old school cross dressing routine as cheerleaders (much amusing Goodman’s coach character) and our Nerds put on a spectacular featuring a Kraftwerk style electronica coupled with Armstrong’s Elvis impersonation and some robot dancing from mini-Nerd.
The coach intervenes in a Trumpish way with the dean who attempts to give the prize to the nerds, but then the Black Panthers (or their equivalent for this film) show up in defense (the lambda brothers who happen to all be black toughs).
This little incomprehensible joke of a film wasn’t overlooked but had a huge success with the kids, and was even heavily mentioned by Harvey Pekar in his seminal working-class stories (later set in comic book form, and then made into a film). The idea was better than the execution though, and really little in the way of anything like uplifting results occur. Getting the girl, of course, kind of happens because it turns out that nerds automatically know how to pleasure ladies in fun houses (after replacing the boyfriend in a pseudo Darth Vader mask). Don’t ask.
I don’t believe this thing could have been written, as a screenplay would require some logical flow from one event to the next. I feel like they just filmed it intuitively. Not only does the incomprehensibility multiply, from illicit drug use overlooked by authorities, to flat out cheating at games, to the paltry slapstick of a robot that seems entirely without purpose, the fellows look basically dazed themselves. A war with the jocks would have been a logical structure, but instead we’re meant to accept the story as a ramshackle stack of weak jokes and undermined contests. Little establishes the nerdiness of our leads except their guffawing laughter and awkwardness with social situations. Curtis Armstrong seems to have zero nerd factor at all, and Lamar, the aerobics loving javelin tosser, is just sort of openly poofy. What they are more than anything else are victims of bullying. And as such deserve to win the contests and the ladies, but sadly the choices used by the film-makers ends up spending any cache of talent on poor puns and innuendo. Pocket protectors and highwaters aren’t enough to signify an outcast and we’re given very little to get to know our nerds with.
This thing can be had cheaply if you choose a Cinemax subscription, otherwise it’ll cost ya.