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Case Number 09069

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Private Lessons

Lionsgate // 1981 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 14th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Bromley discovers that while getting "private lessons" from Emanuelle herself might be every 15-year-old boy's dream, in the end the experience will just leave you feeling used and dirty.

The Charge

What happened to him should happen to you.

Opening Statement

Because someone was still waiting for this to come out on DVD.

Facts of the Case

Phillip "Philly" Fillmore (Eric Brown, Outside Providence), a 15-year old boy going on 11, is living the fantasy of every underage, oversexed suburban kid: he lives in an enormous mansion, his dad's never around, and his very hot and very Dutch housekeeper (Sylvia Kristel of the original Emmanuelle films) has got a bit of a thing for him. Of course, it's like my mom always told me—it's all adolescent hormones and sexual discovery until someone gets hurt.

The Evidence

What is most impressive about Alan Myerson's 1981 sex-com, Private Lessons, is that it finds two completely disparate ways of being bad. The first half of the film offends me as a human being, and the second half offends me as a person who likes movies. I guess all of the bases are covered.

It's difficult to talk about the movie without sounding like a bad sport—someone who just doesn't get the joke—or like a guy who's applying contemporary standards and values to a movie where they just won't fit. And gosh, maybe I just didn't "get" the subtle intricacies of Private Lessons, and maybe I'm just as anachronistic as the next guy, but damned if this movie didn't crawl under my skin. I know that the '80s were a different time; hot off the disco heels of the previous decade, attitudes about sex were considerably more open. It's possible that back in the day, folks may not have batted an eye at this kind of subject matter—there was an innocence to it that's been stripped away over the years, probably by increasingly documented cases of this kind of thing actually happening. Just ask that teacher down in Florida.

See, that's just it. We do live in different times now. And, like it or not, Private Lessons is a movie about a rape. Don't believe me? Just look at the scene in the film in which Ms. Mallow tries to coax Philly into the bathtub with her. He resists, and she keeps on him until he eventually relents, strips down, and climbs in uncomfortably. Now picture the exact same scene, only it's a man in the tub and a 15-year old girl he's trying to talk in, and tell me that there's a single person outside of jail that wouldn't find it somewhat objectionable. 1981 or not, it is what it is. Not calling it such because he's a horny young boy is applying the same double standard we use when situations like this still pop up today. Just ask that teacher down in Florida.

Thankfully, I don't have to object to Private Lessons from a moral standpoint—after all, as the great Roger Ebert says, movies cannot be judged on what they are about but on how they are about it. This means that a good movie could be made from this material (and has been—it's called Blue Car), but Private Lessons ain't it. Let's disregard the clumsy comedy (this is a movie that scores its biggest laughs by having a chubby kid spout graphic sex talk), the wooden performances (Eric Brown may be no worse than any other 80s late-night-cable kid actor, but that's like saying crabs are no worse than any other kind of pubic lice—I don't want any of them in my life. And, let's face it, Sylvia Kristel didn't get famous for her acting talent.), and all of that pesky statutory rape stuff. Put it aside. Just for a second. We can come back to hating it in just a moment. Ok?

Even without any of that, this is an insultingly dumb movie. There is a plot twist that occurs about halfway through (which I have to admit, I didn't see coming—but, then, how could anyone?) that changes not only the tone of the movie, but the entire focus. Now, it's not about rape, but a score of other crimes—including potential murder (though I would argue that if you're going to fake a heart attack, it's not necessary to dribble fake blood from your mouth) and the subsequent cover up by Brown and Howard Hesseman's (About Schmidt) prissy limo driver character. Really? That's what the stupid horny-boy-sexy-French-chick movie is going to turn into? Who could possibly walk away satisfied by this movie?

Lionsgate's new release of Private Lessons is labeled the "25th Anniversary Edition," implying something really souped-up and special. This isn't it. For starters, the film is presented in full frame format only; what's worse is that it looks every bit as old as its 25 years—washed out, scratched up and grainy. (Of course, compared to what the trailer looks like, the film is downright pristine.) The stereo audio track is considerably more manageable; it's nothing special, but it doesn't detract from the movie, either.

The studio hasn't really packed the disc full of extras—apart from the aforementioned trailer, there's a short compilation piece called "Sherman: Love Expert" that does nothing but combine the unfunny lines from the unfunny heavy kid. The main attraction is a commentary track from director Alan Myerson, writer Dan Greenburg, and star Howard Hesseman. It's a disturbing and, at time, fascinating listen, in that two of the three parties involved (only Hesseman seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing) refuse to take responsibility for any of the movie's shortcomings, and there are plenty to choose from. No, instead they spend most of the time blaming "the producer" (R. Ben Efraim, though he's never referred to by name on the track) for every bad choice and praising the elements of the movie that do work (such as the casting of Brown in the lead) as a result of the choices made by this team. Well, the joke's on them. There aren't any elements of Private Lessons that work.

Closing Statement

Fairly early on in my days here at the Verdict, I reviewed Luke Greenfield's teen sex-com update, The Girl Next Door, where I took it to task for lacking the sweetness and innocence of those films it was slavishly aping. Seeing Private Lessons, I think I may have been too hard on Greenfield—his movie, while certainly more cynical, is no more dirty-minded than this bit of sleaze. If this is what the '80s left behind, good riddance.

The Verdict

I need a shower.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 64
Audio: 78
Extras: 50
Acting: 62
Story: 60
Judgment: 62

Perp Profile

Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary with Director Alan Myerson, Writer Dan Greenburg, and Star Howard Hesseman
• "Sherman: Love Expert" Montage
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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