She's cool. He's hot. She's from the Valley. He's not.
One of a clutch of fondly remembered teen-oriented movies from the early 1980s, Valley Girl is notable chiefly as the first starring vehicle for Nicolas Cage, and for the legal wrangling that ensued between MGM and iconoclastic rock star Frank Zappa, whose hit single Valley Girl (showcasing the spot-on parody vocals of his daughter Moon Unit) presaged the film's concept and sensibility.
After many years on the DVD MIA list, Valley Girl finally sees the light of day on a feature-packed 20th Anniversary Special Edition disc. Is it thrillerific, or will it make fans say, "Gag me with a spoon"?
Facts of the Case
So, like, this totally awesome babe named Julie (she's played by Deborah Foreman, who was, like the crazed psycho killer chick in April Fool's Day…not!), she's from the Valley, okay? That's, like, the San Fernando Valley, which is, like, totally north of L.A. and all? And she and some other Vals—Vals, that's like, girls from the Valley, right?—they, like, hang out at the Galleria, which was, like, this totally gnarly mall in Sherman Oaks until they, like, tore it down or whatever, but that was like, after they made this movie, right? Fer sure!
So then Julie, like, she totally dumps her boyfriend Tommy 'cause she's all, like, bored and stuff, plus she wants to, like, hook up with this guy Brad, who's got, like, this totally bitchin' bod, but he totally, like, doesn't even know she's alive, y'know? So Julie and these other babes, they like, go to this totally tubular party, y'know? And Julie meets this Hollywierd dude Randy (Nicolas Cage, before he was all, like, Oscar-winning drunk dude in Leaving Las Vegas), right, who she saw before, like at the beach, and he was, like, totally hot? So he's at this party and he's like, so bitchin', but he's, like, so not from the Valley, y'know, and he's got, like, this whole kinda punk thing goin' on, right, but Julie's buds, these other Vals, they like, bag on him 'cause they think he's, like, grody to the max. I'm so sure! So Julie's all, like, "Whatever!"
And then there's, like, all these bad vibes from Julie's popular buds, though her 'rents (Frederic Forrest from The Rose, and Colleen Camp from, like, those gnarly Police Academy flicks) are, like, totally cool 'cause they're, like, these old Birkenstock hippie types from Woodstock or whatever who own this health food restaurant where they serve, like, tofu and sprouts and stuff—how gross is that? So anyway, Julie's gotta, like, choose between Randy, who's, like, hunkalicious to the max, and her buds, who she's totally known her whole life, even though one of them, this Val named Loryn (Elizabeth Daily, who's like the voice of the pig in Babe: Pig in the City—is that awesome or what?), is, like, fooling around with Julie's ex Tommy, and Suzie's mom is, like, coming on to Suzie's boyfriend Skip—grody! I'm so sure!—and, like, all this other gnarly stuff happens, but you'll have to, like, see the movie or whatever. Fer sure! Like, totally!
Valley Girl is forever linked in the minds of moviegoers of a certain age with another picture that debuted the previous year, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The two films do share several commonalities. Both are set in Southern California in the early 1980s, focus on teen culture and relationships, feature Nicolas Cage (billed under his birth name, Nicolas Coppola, for his tiny role as a surfer punk in Fast Times), and were directed by women—Amy Heckerling, later of Clueless, in the case of Fast Times; Martha Coolidge in the case of Valley Girl.
But in fact, Valley Girl bears much more similarity in theme and tone
to two teen-angst romances of the period, both directed by Howard Deutsch and
written by John Hughes—Pretty in
Pink and Some Kind of
Wonderful. Like these, Valley Girl hearkens back to the familiar
pseudo-Shakespearean mythology of a young couple from opposing backgrounds who
fall in love despite their differences. (In case we failed to tumble to this all
on our own, Coolidge has her young lovers kiss in front of a movie theater whose
marquee advertises a film version of—guess what—Romeo and
Juliet. Nothing the Judge enjoys more than getting clobbered upside the head
by literary allusions.) Also like the Deutsch/Hughes films, Valley Girl
is a smaller ensemble picture; thus it depends far more on the talent and
charisma of its central twosome, Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman, than does its
contemporary Fast Times, which spreads its focus more or less equally
between a half-dozen characters.
With a paltry budget of $350,000 to work with, Coolidge creates a great-looking film that, while inevitably dated by its pop-culture dialogue and fashion sense, still manages to feel fresh and fun two decades later. The plot doesn't take us much of anywhere we haven't been a few hundred times before, but the palpable chemistry between Foreman and Cage, along with Coolidge's obvious affection for these characters and the roiling tumult of their hormone-driven lives, keeps the energy peaked and the entertainment value high.
In retrospect, it's interesting that, although directed by a woman and possessing a powerfully feminine sensibility, Valley Girl was written by two men, Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford. (The pair would again collaborate on the macho adventure send-up Jake Speed, with Lane directing and Crawford taking on the tongue-in-cheek title role.) According to the commentary track, Crawford and Lane specifically sought out Coolidge because they felt the material needed a female perspective. It is precisely that perspective that keeps such potentially exploitative material as the awkward liaison between Julie's best friend (the bubbly Elizabeth Daily) and her erstwhile boyfriend (Michael Bowen, Jackie Brown, Magnolia) from going horribly wrong…much as Amy Heckerling's POV saves a similarly tricky sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Coolidge knows the minds (such as they are) and hearts (ditto) of these self-absorbed, materialistic youths, and manages to keep their often wrong-headed actions believable, even painfully real. (A startling historical contrast—the amount of casual nudity in teen films during this pre-PG-13 era. In the commentary, Coolidge recounts the studio's requirement that she display female breasts at least four times during the film. The director dutifully ticks off each of these necessary evils as it passes.)
The film's key structural problem stems from its introduction of too many incidental characters—characters that the storyline either allows no time to fully utilize, or that only complicate matters with needless subplots that threaten on occasion to derail the main narrative. The most noxious example is the thread involving the mother of one of Julie's friends (played by the lovely Lee Purcell, whose dazzling appearance in the reunion documentary serves notice that either the Fountain of Youth really does exist, or the practice of cosmetic surgery continues to be a cash cow in Hollywood), who wastes precious on-camera minutes attempting to seduce—in the time-honored Mrs. Robinson fashion—her daughter's naïve boyfriend. This hackneyed, ill-conceived hiccup adds nothing to the film except an excuse to check one's wristwatch.
For the film's coming-of-age party, MGM lavishes much deserved Special Edition treatment on Valley Girl. As is the studio's typical practice, the disc includes, on opposite sides, both anamorphic widescreen and full frame presentations of the movie. The anamorphic transfer is something of a disappointment, particularly in its glaringly awful color balancing. Although the picture is bright enough, and adequately captures the fluorescent palette of the era, color clarity is all over the place. Take the club scenes at the New Wave club The Central (later known to Sunset Strip habitués as Johnny Depp's Viper Room), for instance—the harsh red lighting is so overpowering that facial detail in the close-ups is almost non-existent. Vibrant hues frequently blur and bleed, as in the brilliant fuchsia opening titles. The print seems fairly clean for its age, but grain is a problem from start to finish (likely the fault of the source material, not the digital processing), and the expected spots and speckles turn up from time to time.
The audio, which is available in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or the original mono, is similarly lackluster. The 5.1 track does a much better job with the copious pop-rock tunes threaded through the film than with the dialogue, which retains a harsh, tinny character reminiscent of a shouting match in a parking garage. The mono option is less variable, but not any more listenable. Also available are a French dub track and subtitles in French and Spanish.
The disc pays off, though, with a treasure trove of quality supplements. Director Coolidge contributes a detailed, nicely reflective audio commentary that lends a great deal to one's appreciation for the result she and her collaborators were able to achieve against uphill odds (low budget, tight three-week shooting schedule, a largely inexperienced cast). A second commentary track superimposes occasional video interview clips from Coolidge, Nicolas Cage, and other cast and crewmembers. There's also an enjoyable trivia track that serves up Pop-Up Video-style factoids about both the movie and the social environment it depicts.
The headline featurette, Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later, runs 24 minutes and offers an in-depth look back through the eyes of many of the film's principals—with the striking exception of the title character (Deborah Foreman apparently having more earth-shattering things to do that week, perhaps meeting Moon Unit Zappa for lunch to discuss the premature collapse of their mutual fame). With two decades now past, the people involved in the making of the picture have had ample opportunity to mull over the experience, and their often wistful comments here are as interesting as this sort of thing ever gets. In a separate feature, Coolidge and Cage (sounds like a '70s cop show, doesn't it?) go head-to-head in a 20-minute conversation about their work together. Cage apparently succumbed to the temptation to slaughter, skin, and accessorize a Day-Glo alligator on his way to the Viper Room, where the interview was filmed.
The disc's third documentary short resurrects the happening '80s music that propels the movie's soundtrack, including several of the now-fossilized rockers who recorded it. To capture the complete experience, the viewer can segue from this featurette to a pair of videos by the bands Modern English (I Melt With You—man, did you ever get sick of that song back in the day?) and The Plimsouls (A Million Miles Away—man, did you ever…but I repeat myself).
A trio of split-screen storyboard-to-film comparisons arrive next. Due to budgetary restraints requiring extreme film conservation measures, Coolidge relied on detailed storyboarding and intensive pre-shooting rehearsals to ensure that most of the movie's scenes could be captured in one or two takes. These sequences document the success of the director's technique. The three segments total about nine minutes (most of which is consumed by the party sequence).
Flipping the disc to the pan-'n'-scan side (surely you weren't actually watching this side, were you?) reveals the film's theatrical trailer and additional previews of other MGM product, including The Sure Thing and Legally Blonde.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Twenty years after the fact, America's youth of today may well wonder, "Did Valley kids really talk like that in the '80s?" Having attended college in Malibu in the years immediately preceding Valley Girl's release, I can assure you…if the film exaggerates the lazy-voweled, mindlessly repetitive jargon of SoCal teens of the era, it totally doesn't exaggerate by much.
Not having seen Valley Girl in maybe a dozen years, and that most recently in a pureed-for-TV version, I feared that watching it today would be an agonizing exercise. Surprisingly, the movie retains a fair bit of its geeky charm even now. It never reaches the near-mythic level of Fast Times at Ridgemont High or, say, The Breakfast Club, but it still compares favorably with most of the teen cinema of its time (did someone say Porky's?), outlandish vernacular and all. Deborah Foreman's smile still makes a young man's heart skip a beat, and Nic Cage is still, as the Vals put it, hunkalicious.
Combining the film with nicely-done retrospective commentary and extras, Valley Girl: Special Edition loses points only for its unimpressive transfer and the unexplained absence of its female star. Overall, though, this disc is totally tripendicular. Fer sure, dude!
MGM incurs a token fine for not paying enough attention to minor details like picture and sound. All charges against the cast and crew of Valley Girl are dismissed. The Judge will meet everyone down at the food court in the mall for an Orange Julius. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Martha Coolidge
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