Judge Patrick Bromley feels ashamed not recommending this Joe Dante film.
They were looking for adventure…but found trouble instead!
Cable channel Showtime attempted in interesting experiment back in the mid 1990s: they set out to remake "B" movies from the 1950s (and, in some cases, "C" and "D" movies, too) with contemporary casts and directors (both Robert Sin City Rodriguez and William The Exorcist Friedkin made contributions). The series was known as Rebel Highway; now, one of its entries—1994's Joe Dante-directed Runaway Daughters—comes to DVD, courtesy of Dimension Home Video.
Facts of the Case
It's 1950s suburbia, and three bored and repressed teenage girls are looking for a little excitement. For Angie (Julie Bowen, Happy Gilmore, An American Werewolf in Paris), that means dating the town rebel (Paul Rudd, Clueless); for Laura (Jenny Lewis, star of The Wizard and frontwoman for Rilo Kiley), it means defying her squarer-than-square parents; for Mary (Holly Fields, The O.C.), it means going all the way. When Mary's boyfriend (Chris Young, PCU) goes splitsville after she finds herself in a family way, the three girls fake their own kidnapping to hit the road and find a thrill.
It's a tricky thing to put your finger on, exactly why a movie doesn't work. It's even trickier when the director (Joe Dante, Explorers, who I've listed time and again is one of my favorites) and the cast are as strong as they are here. Even the concept is a fairly novel one—remaking those goofy old drive-in movies for a modern audience is an idea with a kind of demented potential. And, yet, I'm going to go ahead and suggest that it's that notion specifically that ends up sinking Runaway Daughters (and the other entries in the Rebel Highway series). I'm not sure that it's possible to contemporize a movie like this in any way that isn't campy (if there is, I'm certain that Dante—a director with a love for all things trashy and nostalgic—would be the guy to do it), and camp is the enemy of this material.
It is their innocence that gives the original movies their appeal, and while innocence is an easy thing to achieve, it's impossible to fake. That's what we get with this 1994 version of Runaway Daughters: manufactured innocence. While Dante has managed to find a consistent tone (and yes, it is light and campy), I'm not entirely sure what's meant to be funny—the idea that we were once so naïve and prudish in these films, or the idea that the 1956 original is such a terrible movie that to be faithful to it is comical. If the former is true, then I have to wonder if the fact that we're far less prudish and naïve nowadays makes this any funnier; if it's the latter, then how could a remake—any remake—stand a chance?
We live now in the age of irony, meaning to play the story of Runaway Daughters straight would be death; to camp it up and play it for laughs, though, results in nothing more than restating the obvious. We know it's silly. We know that to take it seriously is preposterous. But that's what has given those original drive-in pictures such a shelf-life: they're time capsules—a snapshot of a time when a movie like Runaway Daughters was executed with utmost sincerity and expected to be taken deadly seriously. With this 1994 remake, there are no expectations on either side; the filmmakers blow it off as a goof, and the audience assumes it's nothing more. Wouldn't it have been much more interesting if someone had decided to take that original material and try to make it work?
But this is all tone stuff, and maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, I know exactly what I'm getting into with a Joe Dante movie, and his approach with Runaway Daughters isn't too far off from his other, better films—the humor, the sly satire, the in-jokes and retro references are all present and accounted for. There has to be something more to what's wrong with the film, right? There is. There's a weak, meandering script and a deadly pace—it's amazing just how laborious the 82-minute running time (only 75 minutes before the end credits roll around) feels. The performances are uneven, too; on the one hand, we get the who's who of Dante regulars (all of the adults in the film are veterans of his past movies—a real treat for a fan like myself) and some great supporting work by Paul Rudd in his finest James-Dean-as-icon skewering mode, reminding me that Rudd is an unexpectedly gifted and criminally underused comedic actor. The three lead girls, though, are a different story; Julie Bowen is entirely miscast, and Holly Fields goes too far over the top as the put-upon prude. Only Jenny Lewis (aaah, Jenny Lewis) seems to find the right note in her performance; it's a shame, then, that she's given hardly a thing to do in the film.
Dimension's shoddy treatment of the film doesn't help matters any. While Runaway Daughters may have been a forgotten made-for-cable movie, and more than likely not one of the studio's high-profile releases, it still doesn't make any sense why any studio would bother distributing a film on DVD if they clearly don't have an interest in putting any effort into it. The movie is presented in its original full frame television aspect ratio and looks quite aged and incredibly soft—there is no sharpness of detail or definition to the image, and colors are drab and dull. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is serviceable but not astounding; though it is considerably better than the video transfer on the disc, it's nothing I'll be showing off anytime soon. There are no extras—a total missed opportunity to include trailers from other entries in the Rebel Highway series or (especially) their 1950s counterparts.
Runaway Daughters is by far the weakest of Joe Dante's filmography; so weak, in fact, that even I wouldn't recommend it. I might have to throw in my laserdisc copy of Matinee just to restore balance to the universe.
The Court finds both Dimension and Runaway Daughters guilty of wasting Talent and Time, releasing a disappointing film and an inexcusable disc. Do as the title suggests. Run away.
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