Could anything be better than a movie starring both Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald? Judge Patrick Bromley says yes.
What do you do when the wrong kind of girl gives you all the right feelings?
Fresh Horses takes those two charming young Brat Packers, Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy, and basically remakes their previous hit teaming, Pretty in Pink. Only this time, there is no Ducky. And no quirky record store owner. And no Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark—or even in the light. In fact, there are no Orchestral Manoeuvers of any kind to be found in Fresh Horses. There's not even any horses.
Facts of the Case
Matt Larkin (Andrew McCarthy, St. Elmo's Fire, Mannequin) leads a privileged life: he goes to a prestigious college, has wealthy friends, and has just recently gotten himself engaged to a debutante (that's right, a real live debutante). When his best friend (Ben Stiller, There's Something About Mary, Reality Bites) drags him out to the sticks for some unsupervised celebrating, Matt meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club), who is precisely the seductively vulnerable, potentially underage married white trash gal he never knew he always wanted. Or something. Memories of a past life at a high school prom must be plaguing them, as the two are inexplicably drawn to one another, much to the dismay of Matt's socialite friends (when do the friends approve in these movies?).
You can almost feel the two stars of Fresh Horses thrashing against their typecast constraints, violently struggling to break free of their early '80s bubblegum Brat Pack personas. Like Michael J. Fox during his "dark period" (Bright Lights, Big City, Casualties of War), Ringwald and McCarthy aim to prove they're capable of more mature, synth-pop-free material. They may well have been, too, but Fresh Horses isn't the showcase they were looking for.
One almost wants to give everyone involved with the movie credit for trying—they strive to create the anti-'80s teen film, but to a fault. The characters are similarly unhappy, but this time around it has less to do with popularity or school dances than with abusive stepfathers and gang rape (plot elements rumored to have been cut out of Weird Science). Yet, despite all of this misery, we are never able to sympathize with the characters because the script continually questions whether or not Jewel (the victim of said atrocities) is telling the truth—like the McCarthy character, we just end up feeling jerked around. These half-assed stabs at "maturity" run rampant through nearly every facet of the production. Even the photography falls victim; the film attempts to be artistic by way of multiple shots of gray skies and dead trees. It shoots for moody and atmospheric, but walks away just dingy and dull. There's even a somewhat brave attempt to eschew the traditional happy ending, but the character logic behind it doesn't make sense. It's bittersweet for its own sake.
Andrew McCarthy always got a bad rap. Of all the actors in the Brat Pack, he got the least respect for his performances, constantly accused of being stiff or wooden and simply bugging his eyes to display any kind of emotional shift. And, while some of that might be true (he does bug his eyes a lot, when you think about it), I always liked him—the same way I always liked Patrick Dempsey (but that's probably because Dempsey went from totally geek to totally chic). Perhaps that's because I found McCarthy the easiest to identify with—Emilio Estevez was too jockish, Rob Lowe was too pretty, and Judd Nelson was too much of a nostril-flaring badass for me to form any kind of connection with. Andrew McCarthy, on the other hand, was the eternal wuss-romantic—the king of unrequited love, whether it was with a department store mannequin or Ally Sheedy (though I defy you to tell the difference). He was constantly falling in love with the girl that was all wrong for him, and Fresh Horses' Jewel is no different.
Molly Ringwald, once again playing the girl from the "wrong side of the tracks," is all wrong for this part. Attempting to shake the teen princess stigma, Ringwald presents herself as brooding and mysterious, but just comes off uninteresting and less redheaded. Her performance highlights one of the film's central problems—we have absolutely no clue why Andrew McCarthy would be willing to "give it all up" (read: marriage to a rich girl) for Jewel, except that if he doesn't there would be no film. Too many movie romances depend on the love story as a function of the plot, rather than giving us two characters who have appealing qualities or who might actually see something in one another. The "love-at-first-sight" card will only get you so far, especially when there's nothing to back it up.
The film is noteworthy for the appearance of two actors who would eventually skyrocket past the two top-billers in the fame department: Ben Stiller and Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). It's sort of amusing to watch Stiller, prior to seizing control of his own creative destiny, forced to utter the lines and play a type of character he would soon go on to parody on The Ben Stiller Show. In what is potentially the most embarrassing scene in the film (the Aretha Franklin/swimming pool musical montage), Stiller's Cocktail-esque bartending theatrics serve as an excellent prelude to his MTV Movie Awards short, Mission: Improbable (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, I urge you to check out the MI:2 DVD). Mortensen, as Jewel's husband, fares about the same, relegated to playing one of his pre-Tolkien rednecks (G.I. Jane, Leatherface).
The nearly bare-bones disc (save for a few bonus trailers that have nothing to do with the film at hand) from Columbia is a slight improvement, quality-wise, over some of their recent offerings. The full frame presentation (heaven forbid one of these lesser catalog titles be presented in the correct aspect ratio), while looking extremely soft, has a decent, bright picture with only some mild grain. The audio presentation is fine as well; it's not offensive, but not very noteworthy either. Non-English speakers beware, though—there are no alternate language audio tracks or subtitles to be found. No Fresh Horses for you.
What does that title mean?
I would have to be pretty hard pressed to recommend Fresh Horses. It's not that it's a horrible movie—even the actors in it have made dozens worse (The Pick-Up Artist, If Lucy Fell, Weekend at Bernie's II: Bernie Reloaded…should I keep going?). It's just that it's terribly forgettable; it floats away before the end credits start rolling. A hundred and three minutes would be better spent on another film—perhaps something by John Hughes…I'm thinking of something Pink…something Pink.
Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald are found guilty of a misdemeanor. Columbia Pictures is found guilty for continuing to release unremarkable versions of fourth- and fifth-string titles from their catalog. Enough already, folks—let's focus on a few missing and worthwhile titles, like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice or The Monster Squad. Case dismissed.
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