Today marks the opening day of “Project X,” producer Todd Phillips’ ode to adolescent male wish fulfillment, and it’s interesting thus far how the film has divided critics: some celebrate it boundless, puerile hedonism, while others wonder aloud if their generation was ever quite as stupid or irresponsible as the one depicted on screen. Unsurprisingly, however, the behavior depicted in the 2012 is not without precedent, especially if you’ve seen any of a thousand movies released since the 1970s which more or less literally lay the groundwork for what Phillips and his director, Nima Nourizadeh, capture on camera.
As such, it seemed appropriate this week to go back and revisit one of the more successful examples (commercially speaking) of teen sex comedies to see first whether it’s still worth watching, and then whether those crazy kids were doing anything smarter or more responsibly than they evidently are now. All of which is why “Porky’s” is the subject of this week’s “Shelf Life.”
Released March 19, 1982, “Porky’s” was a megahit for 20th Century Fox, the studio that released it: it earned more than $110 million from an initial investment of $4 million in production costs. That said, it was not well-received by critics, including Siskel and Ebert, who reportedly named it one of the worst films of 1982. Currently the film maintains a 32 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That said, it won the Golden Reel Award from the Canadian Genie Awards, and actor Doug McGrath was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Coach Warren.
What Still Works
The movie is almost nothing but stupid teenage hijinks, which in this case is a good thing: writer-director Bob Clark combined George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” aesthetic with “Animal House”’s sophomoric tomfoolery to create an anachronistic portrait of ‘50s high school boys who were desperate to see and experience the fairer sex. And even though it certainly objectifies the female form, and by extension the female “characters” in the film, “Porky’s” never fully feels exploitative, if only because Clark seems to understand that these sex-crazed males deserve a dose of humiliation to go along with their horndog entitlement. (This was an idea later utilized to exhaustive effect in the “American Pie” movies.) Consequently, at least as often as one of the guys scores, or even gets within jerking distance of any part of a female’s anatomy, they’re embarrassed, injured or otherwise on the receiving end of some prank, and usually one enacted publicly.
That said, there is a metric ton of nudity in this film, and quite frankly, that what viewers are paying to see. Not only will you see a very young Kim Cattrall playing an assistant coach with a particular quirk that comes out during intercourse, but pretty much every actress in the film gets partially to completely naked at some point during the film’s 90-minute running time. And in the best way possible, these women’s bodies are beautiful and natural and un-augmented by enhancements or surgery or other sorts of cartoonish, unnecessary exaggerations.
Probably the most important component of the film’s likeability, however, is the likeability of its characters. The teenage boys are immature, headstrong and stupid, but none of them are irredeemable, and in fact a few of them that are tougher or more bigoted actually learn how to be more tolerant in a way that feels strangely believable. They aren’t the entitled, porn-addled teenagers of today, they’re more optimistic and hopeful, if in fairly nefarious ways, and their scheming has enough of a hint of desperation, and honestly, likelihood of failure, that we never feel like they don’t somehow “pay” for what they’re after.
What Doesn’t Work
Even for a low-budget sex comedy, the movie is just stupid. There are a lot of sequences that rely directly on characters in the scene laughing to communicate how funny something is, and in most of those cases the characters overstate. While it’s perfectly believable for 16- and 17-year olds to be as incompetent as many of these are at getting women, some of the stuff they say just doesn’t make sense, and their efforts to woo range from clumsy to offensive.
Generally speaking, there are too many characters, however. Most of the guys look the same, and there’s at least five core characters, so when one of them has a problem, it’s frequently hard to figure out which one is which, or whether he’s the one who previously was dealing with an abusive father, or whatever. While it’s noble of Clark to attempt social commentary by introducing a Jewish character into the group and have him face prejudice, it feels like a distraction from the rest of the story.
Speaking of which, the Porky’s wraparound feels almost superfluous: while it certainly sets the stage for the teenagers’ desperation (or determination), Porky is gone for most of the movie, and is barely a device, much less a character. Meanwhile, the revenge taken on him and his establishment feels like gratifying wish-fulfillment – retaliation in kind against a bully – but it happens so suddenly it feels like Clark decided, “well, the subplots have all been wrapped up, so we might as well get down to the last sequence.” The boys hatch a plan that’s pretty complicated and while it’s amusing, it fails to deliver a truly satisfying sort of pay off to the characters we’ve watched grumble about him for the entire movie.
“Porky’s” is not a great film. It’s mindless entertainment that works only on the level it’s been conceived – a raunchy sex comedy featuring plenty of nudity and plenty of immature hijinks – but its efforts to interject more serious ideas or get any more complicated than that core story feel either clumsy or ripped off from better films. Instead, I’d recommend another 1982 film, “The Last American Virgin,” which explores many of the same themes but offers a wallop of a surprise ending that gives the whole thing much deeper emotional content. But at best, “Porky’s” is a trifle, worthy of a lazy Sunday afternoon viewing session, but certainly not worth canonization.