Girls Just Want To Have Fun
Originally published in 2010 at Forces of Geek
Isn’t it awful when nostalgia betrays you? When something you remember from your distant past as being fun and delightful turns out to be neither of those things? Such is the case with Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
See, I liked this movie when it first came out, back in 1985. Granted, I was eleven at the time, and I also really liked Weird Science, so obviously I had some taste issues. When I watched it again, 25 years down the road, my expectations were modest. I didn’t expect brilliance. Let’s be honest: It’s an entire movie based on a Cyndi Lauper song. There are limits to how good it’s going to be. Even so, I wanted it to be better.
Directed by Alan Metter, Girls Just Want To Have Fun centers around teen dancer/gymnast Janey Glenn (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose family has relocated to Chicago. On her first day at her new Catholic school, she’s befriended by carefree rebel Lynne (Helen Hunt). Lynne is kind of spazzy and obnoxious, but she wears a hat adorned with a gigantic grasshopper and rattles off lines like, “Velcro—next to the Walkman and Tab, it is the coolest invention of the 20th century!”, so her appeal is obvious.
Janey and Lynne bond over their love of Dance TV, their favorite local televised dance show, which—quelle surprise—is holding open auditions for a new pair of featured dancers. The girls decide to go for it, but Janey’s strict career-military father (Ed Lauter) puts his foot down. He’s a jerk, but his reasons are valid: Janey can’t drive, and he doesn’t want her roaming around an unfamiliar city by herself at night. Fair enough, though it’d be nice if he offered to give the kid a ride.
(It’s not clear what Janey’s wan, timid mother, who dresses like Caroline Ingalls and hovers deferentially in the background, thinks about Janey’s Dance TV aspirations, as she has no role in the family decision-making process. At one point, Janey claims her mother tells her to let her father win the battles so they can win the war. This is a nice sentiment, but it’s wishful thinking: In the ultra-patriarchal Glenn household, Janey and her mother aren’t likely to win the war any time soon.)
Against her dad’s orders, Janey sneaks off to the auditions, where Lynne’s routine is deliberately sabotaged by mean rich girl Natalie (Holly Gagnier). As Lynne’s killer dance moves consist of whipping her hair around while snapping her fingers, her failure to make it past the first round cannot be viewed as any kind of loss for Dance TV viewers. Janey, meanwhile, handsprings and backflips her way though the preliminaries. The contest organizers pair her up with hunky contestant Jeff (Lee Montgomery) and order her to spend long, hot, sweaty hours rehearsing with him in the weeks prior to the televised finals. Janey is totally okay with this.
Jeff, it should be noted, is the spitting image of a Blossom-era Joey Lawrence, which is no bad thing. Alas, he’s a dud: He’s relentlessly unpleasant to sweet, well-intentioned Janey, to the point of being gratuitously mean. Jeff has a cute kid sister named Maggie (a surprisingly endearing Shannen Doherty) and an odious best friend, Drew (Jonathan Silverman). The less said about Drew, the better. I’ll just note that for years I’ve been plagued by a memory of a scene from a film I couldn’t quite place in which some creep grabs some unwitting girl’s breasts on a dance floor and twiddles her nipples in different directions while pretending he’s tuning in a radio station. I now have the final pieces of the puzzle: That film was Girls Just Want to Have Fun, and that creep was Drew.
Fellow finalist Natalie, meanwhile, is hosting a debutante ball at a local country club. Because Natalie is hot for Jeff, she slips him an invitation, which Janey and Lynne swipe, photocopy, and distribute in bulk to local undesirables (i.e. punk rockers and female bodybuilders).
Natalie’s ball is a swanky yet dull affair (in the movie’s one note of giddy brilliance, the country club’s terminally uncool house band is named The Grateful Dudes), until it’s crashed by punks (and, yes, female bodybuilders), whereupon the film turns into a Twisted Sister video. This is not meant as a slight; I happen to like Twisted Sister videos. While Holland’s “Wake Up the Neighborhood” blasts, the punks cannonball through the windows, stomp on the hors d’oeuvres, and terrorize the guests. Because this is a 1980s teen movie, they also swarm the dance floor and break into an elaborately choreographed dance number. Her party ruined (or, depending upon your perspective, vastly improved), Natalie swears vengeance on Janey.
For no reason other than that the movie is about two-thirds over by this point and it’s high time to start moving things along, Jeff and Janey decide to fall in love, even though they seem to loathe each other. Their happiness is short-lived: Natalie’s wealthy and powerful father (Morgan Woodward) threatens to have Jeff’s blue-collar dad fired unless Jeff withdraws from the competition. Instead of explaining to Janey he’s decided his family comes first and thus he’ll be unable to dance with her, Jeff picks a fight during rehearsal, which leads to this exchange of dialogue:
Jeff: Not everybody needs to warm up.
Janey: Yes, they do.
Jeff: Oh, excuse me. I didn’t know you were the authority on warming up.
Oh, Jeff. How I hate you.
Jeff flounces off the dance floor, leaving poor Janey heartbroken and confused. She slumps back home, where her father grounds her for sneaking out. It sucks to be Janey.
Jeff and his dad have a father-son talk that lasts about eight million years. His dad decides Jeff’s dance ambitions are more important than his job and urges him not to drop out of the finals. If I felt anything toward Jeff other than exasperated hostility, I’d probably cheer this development. Many of the flaws of this film could have been smoothed over if someone had bothered to make Janey’s love interest less of an appalling human being.
On the night of the contest, Janey and Lynne sneak off to the television studio. When their bus gets stuck in a traffic jam, they walk on top of the gridlocked cars to freedom. It’s a Mentos commercial just waiting to happen.
Janey and Jeff reconcile at the studio, without a single word about Jeff’s wretched behavior. All five pairs of dancers in the finals seem pretty evenly matched—in fact, if there’s a weak link, it’s Janey and Jeff —but when the judges’ votes are tabulated, Janey and Jeff are tied with Natalie and her partner for the lead. The show’s host (legendary disk jockey Richard Blade) declares that the winners will be decided by a dance-off.
I ask you, is there any more quintessentially 1980s phrase than “dance-off”?
Janey and Jeff trot out their secret weapon (synchronized backflips), which seals the deal, and they’re crowned the winners. Lynne gets her happy ending too: When Dance TV’s music news reporter storms off in a huff, Lynne comes riding in on a horse-drawn carriage, dressed in a sparkly outfit, and takes her place.
Janey’s father sees her dancing on live television and charges down to the station to stop the show. When she’s announced as the winner, he’s overcome with pride and forgets all about his anger at her disobedience. Fine, but this is a huge cheat: The source of father-daughter conflict wasn’t that he didn’t want her to dance—it was that he didn’t want her going out at night. Janey’s victory doesn’t solve—or address—that problem.
More father-daughter unpleasantness: When Natalie complains to her dad about losing to Janey, he snaps at her to shut up and storms off. I love seeing a spoiled brat get his or her comeuppance as much as the next avid viewer of teen movies, but it’s a sour moment. After he created a monster by indulging his daughter’s every whim, there’s no satisfaction in seeing him turn on her.
These small sour notes pile up throughout the film and damage the end result. Despite a likeable heroine—Parker, honestly, has never been better—and despite a handful of lively dance sequences, Girls Just Want To Have Fun is ultimately not much fun.