Howard Deutch’s “Some Kind of Wonderful” begins with a young man from the wrong side of the tracks- in fact, this is made literal by showing him strut through a train yard.
Keith (Eric Stoltz) has a mad crush on Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), who attends the same high school, but she’s in the grip of her slimy, controlling boyfriend, Hardy (Craig Sheffer). Keith commiserates with Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), his best friend and the only source of wisdom in his life.
Keith is a troubled youth, to be sure, but his all-or-nothing scheme to win over Amanda winds up alienating him from his father (John Ashton) and testing his friendship with Watts.
Back to that trainyard: Stoltz’s Keith marches down the railroad tracks as the soundtrack pounds away, looking like a true movie star. Keith walks into the way of an oncoming train, waiting until the last safe moment to walk off the tracks, an act that sums up the character.
Written and produced by John Hughes, “Wonderful” is similar to “Willow” (1988), in that despite being directed by Ron Howard, it’s every inch a film by its writer/executive producer, George Lucas.
“Some Kind of Wonderful” takes the general idea and characters of Hughes’ prior hit, “Pretty in Pink” (1986) and provides a reversal and re-think of the love triangle, particularly of the Andie/Duckie dynamic. It’s now the smarter, dramatically richer Keith/Watts pairing.
This movie is far superior to “Pretty in Pink” (1986). For one thing, it embraces middle class values far more. The villain is also a better fit here than in the prior film – whereas James Spader’s highly stylized creep was better suited to “Less Than Zero” the following year (where he gave essentially the same performance but in a setting that fit his level of suave menace).
Sheffer’s Hardy is a far more recognizable and loathsome bully.
Ashton’s Dad wants Keith to be living for the future, whereas Keith is only living for right now; this makes Keith a relatable teenager, though the character is far from endearing. Keith is a jerk, something we see even before he is clearly stalking Amanda.
To the film’s credit: neither Hughes, Deutch nor Stoltz himself are celebrating Keith’s behavior. Keith’s plan is to get the girl is by spending his way into Amanda’s heart, win her over by sheer force, then suffering a beating in her honor, all in one night.
It’s a terrible idea. He later confesses, “I want to show the girl I’m as good as anyone else” Keith’s motives suck.
Amanda later calls him out on his rotten attitude over a dinner and, you know what? She’s absolutely right. I can‘t think of another Hughes film where the main character is both the romantic lead but such a tool, you want him to fix himself more than get the girl in the end.
Thompson’s Amanda Jones has a surprising depth, both in how she’s written and how the actress plays her. Stoltz, who broke out with his stunning, deeply felt work in Peter Bogdonovich’s “Mask” (1985), made unfortunate (and not entirely fair) headlines for being fired from the lead role in “Back to the Future.”
It’s not Stoltz’s fault that the filmmakers had second thoughts about how serious he was playing Marty McFly, then rebound with an interesting mix of indie and mainstream films. Keith is among the least likable of Hughes’ protagonists, but Stoltz always kept me fascinated, even as the character is consistently frustrating.
Stoltz and former “Back to the Future” co-star Thompson have good chemistry (if you count “Back to the Future,” this is actually their third film together).
Thompson’s Amanda suffers more than Keith realizes and Thompson brings a lot of heart and hurt into the role. Yet, as strong as Thompson’s work is, the film belongs to Masterson.
Watts is a true original, defined as a “tomboy” (today, we see how progressive and forward thinking her outward identity and persona is) and Masterson is dazzling in this. There is so much fire and invention in her portrayal. It’s also heartbreaking to watch Watts endure all the casual cruelty that Keith unknowingly dishes out towards her.
The brilliant character actor Elias Koteas, in his breakout role, steals his every scene. Candace Cameron Bure is adorable as Keith’s youngest sister, who is introduced playing with Garbage Pail Kids (who would get their own movie the same year!).
There are great scenes here that are beautifully written and performed: Hardy’s unlikely invitation to Keith in a high school art studio (the writing here is smart, as Keith, to his credit, isn’t buying it and neither are we).
Another rousing bit is when Watts teaches Keith how to smooch, specifically “the kiss that kills” (why on Earth wasn’t that the title?).
Set to Stephen Duffy’s “She Loves Me” and filmed with a roaming camera that captures a very hungry kiss, we witness a sort of unspoken connection captured by two people who aren’t fully conscious of how much they love one another.
It’s the most swoon-worthy scene in any Hughes film.
FAST FACT: Masterson’s character, a drummer, got her name from The Rolling Stones’ musician, Charlie Watts.
Hughes’ handle on the soundtrack is deeply felt as always – he utilizes both a cover and the original version of the Rolling Stones’ “Amanda Jones” (yes, we get it, the character names are also a reference, and its more on the nose than necessary).
The use of Charlie Sexton’s socko “Beats So Lonely” in the final scene was a masterstroke, though the song is bizarrely not on the film’s soundtrack album (though at least we got one, as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” with its winning song selection, never got an official soundtrack released).
This was the final high school teen drama from Hughes, who released this the same year as his wonderful “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Reportedly a troubled project that survived casting shake-ups, with post-“Pretty in Pink” lead fallouts (Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald turned down the lead roles, though they later tried to reignite their film pairing in the failed “Fresh Horses” not long after) and even a rotating director. Deutch was out, replaced by Martha Coolidge, then replaced by Deutch(!).
I can certainly imagine McCarthy and Ringwald playing these roles (Thompson and Stoltz even sport hair styles similar to Ringwald and McCarthy) but the casting of Stoltz and Thompson is more interesting.
What begins as an engaging teen drama then becomes a thoughtful, sometimes painful depiction of how sloppy, misguided and selfish love makes us. It doesn’t romanticize Keith’s all-or-nothing efforts to win over Amanda and, instead, allows us to kind of root against him, even though he’s the “good guy.”
By the third act, “Some Kind of Wonderful” is consistently strong dramatically, unloading one standout scene after another.
How Lea Thompson Met Her Husband While Making John Hughes’ Classic ’80s Teen Romance Some Kind of Wonderful https://t.co/yaJjRqRpRy
— People (@people) February 22, 2021
Hughes includes a few broadly performed scenes, like Maddie Corman, playing Keith’s little sister, giving an overdone reaction to her father’s unwanted high school visitation and the big confrontation at the end is a little too cutesy, though still totally satisfying in a way the tinkered finale of “Pretty in Pink” never was.
This is how you do a romance, with a tremendously satisfying wrap up (the look on Watt’s face and Keith’s flashback to their “practice” kiss always gets me). Despite the Hughes name, the clear “Pretty in Pink” vibe from the poster and sporting one of the best teaser trailers of its decade, the film quickly vanished form theaters.
While most Hughes die-hards continue to debate who Molly Ringwald should really have taken to the prom, “Some Kind of Wonderful” remains an undervalued and dramatically rich alternative to “Pretty in Pink.” You can have Duckie dancing all over a record store – I’ll take Watts banging away at a drum set with a heart on it. No, it’s not subtle, but then, Hughes never was.