Let’s dive head first into the warm, refreshing waters of 80s SoCal with a college comedy as light as a sea breeze. The Allnighter is a little-known gem featuring a little, but largely-known woman – Susanna Hoffs. That’s one third of The Bangles, the group that walked like Egyptians. The movie is a female-centred take on the coming of age genre, which is kind of clever and refreshing. It was written and directed specially for Susanna by her own mother, Tamar Simon Hoffs. Unfortunately though, the narrative is shallow and haphazard, and the acting a little weak. That said, with all the space left by a general lack of substance, the movie packs in a lot of totally 80s goodness – college girls, surfer dudes, beach parties, weird cocktails, love triangles, jail fights, and so much more. From the cheap, yet hip soundtrack, to the sweet hair-dos and outfits, it’s an almost unbelievable primary source that may well be taught in modern history classrooms decades from now. Did I mention Joan Cusack as a Madonna-looking, wannabe filmmaker, or the gratuitous, slap-bass-backed shots of beach hunks getting into their wet gear? There’s so much silliness and fun going on it almost doesn’t matter that the story unfolding is quite uninteresting.
The circumstances behind The Allnighter are decidedly odd. For all intents and purposes it was a star vehicle created for Hoffs, who fancied herself as an actor, by her mum, who fancied herself as a filmmaker. There’s really not enough evidence here of either to make any kind of judgement about their skills. At least that’s how I’m going to look at it, being a bit of a Bangles fan. I’m going to give the Hoffs duo the benefit of the doubt and say it wasn’t just the underdeveloped story and mediocre acting to blame, but also the low budget and lack of marketing. I mean there’s definitely some truth in that – check out the the poster which features a rather sultry still of Susanna in a bikini, from a scene that never happened. At least it looks appropriately cheesy and 80s. Hell, they still turned a decent profit if the estimations are accurate – a budget of about $1 million and earnings of about $2.7 million from the US box office alone. Not a patch on a Billboard #1 though.
It seems at several stages from pen to video store there was a real lack of finesse on the project, or perhaps just a lack of understanding. It’s unfortunate, yet despite my complaints, The Allnighter occasionally offers something a tad clever and humourous, including a hilarious valet bit part. Oh, and a totally missed opportunity for a bunch of characters teased in the intro to be introduced. What it really needs is some depth to the drama. Maybe Tamar should have brought on a more experienced co-writer than first-timer M.L. Kessler, who’s next credit was Power Rangers Ninja Storm 16 years later. I mean, getting outside writing talent worked for The Bangles. The idea is good, taking what was touched on so expertly in Fast Times at Ridgemont High – the female point of view on struggles with sex, romance, and the path to adulthood. The problem is they’ve dropped the ball, watering it down to cover a feature run time, rather than adding to it.
If you really want to know what goes on, think of every college sex comedy set near a beach and inject extra 80s. Actually, speaking of, for a sex comedy there’s basically no sex. Though perhaps that’s a good thing, considering that the lead actress’ mum is the director. Anyway, Hoffs plays Molly, valedictorian at fictional Pacifica College, who struggles through life, love, and study with a little help from her bosom buddies, Val and Gina. Val – Dedee Pfeiffer, the younger sister of Michelle who’s career unfortunately did not take off in quite the same way – is a flirty beach bunny with a wanker boyfriend, and Gina – the fantastic Joan Cusack – is a filmmaker who doesn’t understand personal boundaries. A turbulent and unbelievable series of events unfolds over the entirety of one big night preceding their graduation, hence the title. This mostly involves Molly and her struggle to find romance. She fights with the guy she really wants, surfer stud CJ – John Terlesky of Chopping Mall – and chases after an aging rocker – familiar face Michael Ontkean of Twin Peaks and apparently a bunch of cheap 70s flicks. Meanwhile Val finds out her fiancé is a controlling yuppie – Phil Brock who’s most impressive credit is an episode of Dallas – and Gina is apparently making a film about their college experience. Something we’re constantly, painfully reminded of, despite it having no impact on the story.
With this big party going on, involving a rather impressive beach bar manned by a crazy guy simultaneously running 4 blenders of alcoholic goodness, there’s a fair bit of drinking and a bit of loose behaviour. Don’t worry though, it stays very PG, it just means the characters have a reason to find themselves in some whacky situations, and that’s where the writing actually gets a little interesting. This includes Molly being trapped on a hotel balcony, CJ nearly dying in the surf despite being a very accomplished surfer, and Val and Gina being mistaken for prostitutes and jailed. For a movie 108 minutes long it really doesn’t go anywhere at any point. The only reason it’s not a total loss is the sweet, 80s, Californian beach party setting.
Despite being a star vehicle, Hoffs’ character has nothing in the way of any clear development, and the poor thing really doesn’t come out of it looking very accomplished. Almost all the characters in this party flick, so sadly light on actual partying, suffer the same affliction. Cusack is probably the most interesting, but her character is really just there as a quirky relief, and Pfieffer seems fun – one-dimensional, but at least quite believable. The best written character is Brock’s yuppie, who is a silly highlight. Terlesky is definitely dreamy, and his character at least has a bit of emotional conflict to play with, but for the most part he and his bleached-haired buddy, Killer – first timer James Shanta – are just caricature surfer dudes. One thing mother Hoffs does show is an understanding of teen movie stereotypes, and 80s SoCal culture, so be prepared for plenty of that. That’s not a complaint either – good, old fashioned, basic character types are about the only thing giving the narrative any drive, and where the movie gains some of its pure, 80s flavour.
Speaking of 80s, I haven’t mentioned the soundtrack yet! It’s definitely not a huge part of the budget, but they’ve struck upon a few gems in there, namely Timbuk 3, Mike & the Mechanics, and Aussie punk rockers The Hard-Ons. Oh and this tacky gem about not needing a television, or a phone, or something. Just watch it. As for the artistic merits of the rest of the movie, the most stylistic it gets is when it looks like a daytime soap, so perhaps the less said about the crew’s efforts the better. The best thing about the movie though are the awesomely 80s, beach party scenes, shot on location and everything. The feeling of getting close to being at a wild, 1987, West Coast college party is really the only gift this movie gives. Not to mention the majority of what makes it remotely enjoyable – 80s fashion, 80s music, 80s party shenanigans, and so on. I reckon it would have been a hell of a time being an extra on that shoot.
Considering its impeccable timing with The Bangles’ worldwide success, it’s honestly surprising and a little sad The Allnighter fizzled. Manic Monday and Walk Like an Egyptian had burnt up charts just prior to the release, with the latter being named Billboard’s number 1 song of the year. Alas, probably due to the general failings of the movie, and perhaps because she wasn’t a solo act, Hoffs was not to become the next Madonna. Don’t feel too bad, though, as The Bangles did enjoy one more massive hit with Eternal Flame before breaking up in 1989. I guess you should feel a little sorry for the rest of the cast and crew involved, who come out looking decidedly average. That said, if you’re an 80s tragic like myself, pair this with a couple of fruity cocktails and you’ll have a fun time without having to pay any attention.