Sixteen Candles (United States, 1984)

May 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sixteen Candles Poster

With a film like Sixteen Candles, I find myself wishing I could create my own cut. Some of the material works marvelously well, but the stuff that doesn't takes the movie down with it. For teen films in the '80s, this was a watershed picture - an attempt to move away from the sex comedy and toward something more reality-based. It was also the directorial debut of John Hughes, a man who started his career working for National Lampoon and whose penchant for good-natured raunchiness is in evidence here, although not nearly to the degree that can be found in some of his earlier, R-rated screenplays (Class Reunion, Vacation).

Hughes built his reputation upon what he achieved in Sixteen Candles - the ability to fuse elements of zany humor with three-dimensional characters. It's not dissimilar to what Judd Apatow has been doing two decades later (although Apatow's characters are a few years older than Hughes'). As a director, Hughes made only eight films over a seven year period (1984 through 1991). He was more prolific as a writer but retired from film altogether by the late '90s, with his last truly memorable effort being Home Alone. Still, in that short time, Hughes gave the world Molly Ringwald, the Brat Pack, Ferris Bueller, and helped make John Candy a household name. More importantly, his view of what it meant to be a teenager spawned a cottage industry and resulted in nearly every teen-related movie being compared favorably or unfavorably to "a John Hughes film." Sixteen Candles is where it all started.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film isn't the obnoxiousness of certain characters, the spot-on performance by Ringwald, or the blatant ethnic stereotyping of Long Duk Dong, but the ability of a film this "off-color" to receive a PG rating. With the PG-13 still a few months away from debuting at the time of Sixteen Candles' release, the choice was between PG and R, and the MPAA apparently believed that something so obviously aimed at teenagers should not be deprived of its target audience. Thus, Sixteen Candles, with its "fuck," bare breasts, and oral sex innuendo may represent the hardest PG in the history of motion pictures.

If a girl turns 16 and no one notices, does it matter? That's the situation for Samantha (Ringwald), who awakens on the morning of her Sweet Sixteen to find her entire family too preoccupied with her older sister's impending nuptials to remember her birthday. "I can't believe this. They fucking forgot my birthday!" she laments. What she really wants, however, isn't something her mother or father can deliver: it's the school hunk, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), who is so far out of her league she shouldn't even be fantasizing about him. However, Jake isn't as disinterested in Samantha as might be expected and, when he catches her staring at him, he smiles back, causing her to flee in panic. Jake is dating Caroline (Haviland Morris), possibly the hottest girl in school, but that doesn't dampen his growing interest in the flat-chested redhead. Meanwhile, Samantha is the object of someone else's overheated ardor: Ted the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), who follows her like either a lovesick puppy or a psycho stalker, and needs a pair of her panties to prove to his buddies that he has gone where no geek has gone before.

The more outrageous Sixteen Candles gets, the less effective it is. The constant is Samantha who, even during the silliest circumstances, retains her believability. I feel like I knew this girl in high school. She sat in front of me in Geometry and across the class in English. Not so with anyone else. Ted is an import from other, much worse movies (such as Revenge of the Nerds), a geek so overplayed that he transcends even a parody of the type. Jake is far too good to be true, although it is interesting to find a movie in which the presumed goal - the ugly duckling girl getting the hot guy - isn't just a waypoint on the path to true love, but the actual destination. Most of Samantha's relatives are stereotypes who bear a strong resemblance to the cousins and grandparents in the Vacation films (no surprises there), but her father (played by Paul Dooley) is given an opportunity to become a real person through a touching, late night heart-to-heart he has with his daughter. The most irritating character of all is Long Duk Dong (Gedde Wantanabe), who isn't offensive because he's politically incorrect, but because he's a pointless waste of time whose every appearance sends the film into a comedic vacuum.

Almost every scene that focuses on Samantha works in one way or another. The further the movie diverges from her, the less successful it is. Samantha can even bring Ted down to earth. The two share a moment sitting in the front seat of a car in auto shop, and the tete-a-tete works. Contrast this with the abysmal conversation later in the film in which Ted offers advice about women to the more experienced Jake. That scene is cringe-worthy. Sixteen Candles' Achilles heel is that it proves utterly unable to involve viewers when Samantha isn't around. That's when Hughes' National Lampoon instincts kick in and, constrained by the limitations of the desired PG rating, he can't let loose. The result: every attempt at "raunchy" humor fails. This leaves us with an effective 60-minute coming-of-age story polluted by 30 minutes of painful filler. Sixteen Candles improves with judicious use of the fast forward button.

In the '80s, Hollywood producers took note of the affection teenagers showed for this movie, and every studio soon had a Hughes clone in production. Hughes became a script factory, churning out teen comedies of varying quality. (My personal favorite Hughes film is one he wrote but did not direct: Some Kind of Wonderful.) Molly Ringwald, whose charisma and unforced performance represent one of Sixteen Candles' strengths, became an "it girl" for a few years before flaming out. (She's still working , but mainly in TV.)

It's strange how the passage of time can warp perceptions. Many of the films we associate with Hughes are productions in which he was only a collaborator, not the sole author (Pretty in Pink comes to mind - he wrote but did not direct it). Sixteen Candles represents the director distilled to his purest essence: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Flawed though it may be, Sixteen Candles offers one of the best and most honest representations of '80s high school to be found in any contemporary feature.

Sixteen Candles (United States, 1984)

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Michael Schoeffling, Anthony Michael Hall, Haviland Morris, Gedde Wantanabe, Paul Dooley, Blanche Baker
Screenplay: John Hughes
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Music: Ira Newborn
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1984-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Occasional Profanity, Sexual Situations, Brief Female Toplessness, Brief Female Side Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1