Who Re-wrote the Book of Love?
After having built a stellar career directing grim, critically acclaimed movies like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, I can see why Francis Ford Coppola might want to switch things up a bit. And what could be further from hacking into a bull with a machete than a remake of Back to the Future aimed squarely at Yuppies?
Peggy Sue Got Married is a strange film. It's not really a time travel movie, and its not really a comedy, but it wears the skin of both. All of the actors who appear as forty-something suburban squares in 1986 also play themselves as teenagers in a prolonged flashback to 1960, resulting in what I can only describe as a two-hour, Archie-themed AA mixer. Kathleen Turner stars as Peggy Sue Kelcher, a soon-to-be-divorced mother of two who passes out during her twenty-five-year high school reunion and wakes up during her senior year of high school.
Unsure of whether or not she's dreaming or actually trapped in the past, Peggy Sue makes the most of her experience: drinking, telling off her algebra teacher, and sleeping with the Beat-poet classmate she'd always fantasized about. She also confounds her best friends with adult wisdom and helps school nerd Richard (Barry Miller) become a famous inventor by cluing him into things like the Walkman and running shoes.
But Peggy Sue's whimsical trip down memory lane is overshadowed by memories of her future with wannabe-rock-star boyfriend, Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who's destined to become a philandering alcoholic. This relationship is the heart of the film, and Turner and Cage do their best to walk the thematically dubious tightrope of Jerry Leightling and Arlene Sarner's screenplay. Peggy Sue falls in and out of love with Charlie a number of times, and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to root for them to wind up together or hope that they'd avoid getting married.
As played by Cage, Charlie is a confused, ambitious boy whose desire to do the right thing is hindered by his libido and desperation to be perfect. These are potentially the seeds of a monster, but the filmmakers never really make their case. Indeed, Peggy Sue's initial quest to stop herself from marrying Charlie seems driven by her own desire to live a more carefree and fulfilling life (which wouldn't bode well for her two grown children); Turner's melodramatic performance calls to mind not a woman of introspection but instead the showy, failed Broadway singer Kristen Wiig plays on SNL.
The movie's outcome, though kind of sweet, makes all of the Will-They/Won't-They drama irrelevant. I'm not spoiling much by saying that the moral of the story is to appreciate your life choices, no matter how hard that may be. It's a lovely message, but one that sucks all the air out of the characters' conflicts and paints Peggy Sue as a hypochondriacal whiner who blames other people for her own lack of courage and attentiveness. It's as if the original eighteen-year-old Peggy Sue was such an airhead that she based all of her life choices on how she might feel in a given week; only when the hardened version of herself swoops onto the scene does she take stock of anything of consequence. Yes, teenagers can be dumb and shortsighted, but we never see the "Aha!" moment when the doormat becomes Kathleen Turner.
It's a real problem when your main character isn't nearly as interesting as the supporting cast. In particular, Cage steals the film with a big-toothed, husky performance that's so weirdly specific that it defies categorization. Charlie is both king of the school and a total geek, and I wanted nothing more than to follow him from Fabian clone to washed-up appliance salesman.
The movie's real discovery, though, is Barry Miller. His Richard is so nuanced, tragic and delightful that he could have also spun off into his own picture. As the billionaire tech genius returning to the school that once rejected him, his cool, above-it-all venom is deliciously mean. But as a teenager, we see an inquisitive, gentle soul become warped by years of wedgies and name-calling. Sadly, he's the most fully realized character in the movie.
I don't mean to suggest that Peggy Sue Got Married is a bad film. It's just okay. In some scenes, it's pretty great. And you can tell exactly which scenes those are by composer John Barry's score. Though I normally hate intrusive, Tell-Me-How-to-Feel music, Barry's swelling heart-string-tuggers underscore the best moments; the ones where the film ditches comedy altogether and touches on universal themes of growing up. I got a bit misty-eyed at times, 'cause I'm a sucker. But not even a handful of really touching moments can salvage a clunker--especially when they pepper a minefield of strange choices and downright bad filmmaking.
It's widely accepted that Francis Ford Coppola is a cinematic genius. But I have to question that, based solely on his willingness to sabotage his own films by casting his daughter, Sophia, in them. Her harpooning of The Godfather Part 3 is legendary, but it's not like he didn't have warning. Playing Peggy Sue's pre-teen sister, the younger Coppola delivers her lines as if being revived with smelling salts. She's flat, awful, and wholly unnecessary.
Compared to the film's climax, however, hiring her was a stroke of brilliance. Out of nowhere, Peggy Sue says "goodbye" to all of her friends and heads to her grandparents' house. Her grandfather (Leon Ames) takes her to his lodge meeting, which turns out to be a gathering place for a brotherhood of ancient wizards or something. They attempt to send her back in time, but--
Forget it. Coppola's screenwriters clearly didn't know how to handle the home stretch, so they threw this geriatric mumbo-jumbo at the wall. Fortunately, the sub-par subplot only lasts for about five minutes before being discarded. But, still, in a film of soft zigzags, the mystic lodge bit is a hard left turn into a brick wall, and I have to wonder if it was a last-minute addition to the faltering story.
This harmless, fluffy movie might be better known for bridging the Back to the Future phenomenon and the late-80s boom of body-switching movies like Vice Versa and Big (a tenuous but legit connection). It also stars up-and-comers like Jim Carrey, Joan Allen and Catherine Hicks. But these gems of retrospect do nothing to improve the film as a piece of entertainment. If Coppola's filmography were a yearbook, Peggy Sue Got Married would not be pictured.