The late John Hughes was a Reaganite conservative. He got his foot in the door of the entertainment world by writing for the often bawdy National Lampoon publication, where fellow right-winger P.J. O’Rourke was editor. He started writing screenplays, succeeding with National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983, a box office success that gave Hughes a deal with Universal Studios. Sixteen Candles (starring Molly Ringwald who would go on to be his muse for two more pictures) was his directorial debut and that hit gave him carte blanche to create his watered-down, xenophobic coming-of-age vision in white-bread, good ole middle America, not a POC in sight.
The Criterion Collection—the discerning home video distribution company responsible for immortalizing such film auteurs as Akira Kurasawa, Agnes Varda, Satyajit Ray, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—has licensed and as of January 2 released Hughes’ The Breakfast Club from 1985. Is Hughes really Criterion worthy? Criterion declares the movie established Hughes “as the bard of American youth.” Surely its handful of (five) teen stereotypes and ribald humor helped make The Breakfast Club one of the most popular of mainstream films of that year along with Back to the Future and Rambo—compared to the latter two titles, Breakfast Club could be considered erudite. Sure, go ahead and preserve it for the sake of…discussion? Present-day discussions that will touch upon the presence of homophobic slurs, sexism, formulaic filmmaking, as well as noting the incredible lack of diversity and that the social issues addressed (privileged white kid vs. not-as-privileged white kid) do not go beyond the more picturesque suburbs of Chicago.
The Breakfast Club is not terrible, but even as it ages the work will never be 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, a landmark film with a diverse cast, allusions to homosexuality and incest within the cloak of teenage delinquency, and the symbolic backdrop of the Griffith Observatory. Hughes’ film has an after-school-special teleplay ambience, shot almost entirely in an actual Des Plaines, Illinois, school library, which happens to be a gorgeous setting of modernist architecture. Here is where five students from different school cliques spend their Saturday in detention after their neglectful parents drop them off. A bitter, underpaid school administrator oversees their discipline, and belittles them at every chance. Group therapy unfolds.
The script sounds stilted, especially during the monologues of “rebel” John Bender (Judd Nelson, the worst actor in this particular Brat Pack cast—he’s so over-the-top even his reaction shots are stupid). The rest of the kids—popular princess Claire (Molly Ringwald), jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez of the Martin Sheen family dynasty that includes his brother, Charlie Sheen), brainy nerd Brian (Hughes’ go-to Anthony Michael Hall), and proto-goth weirdo Allison (creative child prodigy Ally Sheedy)—are pros, Hall being the most naturally funny. Of course, being filmed in 1985, the female actors are telegenic—Molly Ringwald, an alabaster goddess, was the “it” girl for much of the 1980s.
Speaking of the ’80s, that decade produced a wide array of music, some of it very good and timeless. Hughes’ films of the era utilized a lot of “new wave” tunes, such as The Psychedelic Furs’ 1981 song “Pretty in Pink” used for the flick of the same name, and the irritating “Weird Science” by Oingo Boingo. The Breakfast Club features THE blandest middle of the road soundtrack, the signature song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” performed by Simple Minds who seemed to lose their edgy mojo after this recording. The montages in which the detainees dance to lame music are downright embarrassing to watch.
Formulaic rightly describes The Breakfast Club denouement: a happy ending with four of the dismissed pupils heterosexually pairing off. Allison undergoes a “makeover” by Claire. The individualistic outsider becomes yet another mall-ready conformist in the Third Act. Years later, Sheedy and Ringwald expressed regret for the scene. Only nerd Brian (Hall) exits the school without a chance of romance, and is picked up by his father, an uncredited John Hughes, a fortunate male filmmaker of marginal talent who managed to carve out a lucrative career, apparently reputable enough to be honored by Criterion.