How long is it going to take for filmmakers to understand that movies about teenagers set in past decades are not intrinsically funny just because of the cheesy fashions and music of the era?
That message apparently hasn't reached the makers of Take Me Home Tonight, a likable misfire of a comedy that revs its engines but never achieves liftoff. Set on Labor Day weekend in 1988, it seems content to poke fun at the clothes -- a cross between early MTV and Miami Vice (which was conceived as "MTV cops") -- and to package some of the more listenable (if inconsequential) music of the era around a joke-challenged romantic story.
At its center is Matt Franklin (Topher Grace), a recent MIT grad who is back home in the San Fernando Valley, adrift in his own life. His cop father (Michael Biehn) is upset at having spent a couple hundred thou on his son's education, only to have him come home and work as a clerk at a video store in the mall.
It's the night of an annual shindig thrown by Kyle (Chris Pratt), rich-kid boyfriend of Matt's twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) -- and Matt finally has a reason to go. He's run into Tori Fredricking (Teresa Palmer), the girl he crushed on in high school but never had the nerve to talk to. She's also just out of college and back working at an investment bank. So Matt, Wendy and Matt's best friend, Barry, head for Kyle's party, where Matt will finally make his move on Tori.
There are other variables: Barry, an explosively pudgy guy, has just been fired from his job selling luxury cars -- but to make sure Matt makes the right impression at the party, Barry "borrows" a Mercedes convertible from his former employer -- a car that turns out to have a significant baggie of blow in the glove compartment.
The forebears of this film are numerous: from American Graffiti to Sixteen Candles up to The Hangover. They're films in which a group of innocents stay up all night on a quest, getting into -- and out of -- the kind of trouble they could only imagine before that night. In the process, they uncover facets of their own personality they never knew were there.
The problem is that the script -- by Jackie and Jeff Figo, alumni of That 70s Show - understands how to create the set-ups but not how to deliver the punchlines, a common flaw of contemporary comedy. Even a scene in which Barry has his dream come true -- a cougar (Angie Everhart) lures him into a bathroom to have sex with him -- peters out, so to speak.
This is one of those movies where most of the film's biggest laughs can be found in the trailer. Even worse, director Michael Dowse has so little feel for comic timing that those gags are actually funnier in the commercials because they've been tightened and trimmed of extraneous material that slow and soften the laughs.
That's too bad because Grace is a comic talent just waiting for the right film to launch him. He's got spotless timing and a wonderfully quirky way of reading lines to give them more life than they deserve.
Similarly, Fogler brings a dynamic quality to the screen that would make him perfect to play comedian Sam Kinison. But the material here is too flaccid for him to truly let it rip. Faris, meanwhile, is a skilled comedian who is given none of the punchlines.
Which means that, unfortunately, Take Me Home Tonight is a consistently disappointing effort. It's comedy interruptus, bringing the viewer to the brink of laughter without ever actually letting him get his rocks off.