12 November, 2013

The Last American Virgin - When Teen Movies Go Wrong

What’s the worst thing that happened to you as a teenager?

If you answer this question by saying “I watched The Last American Virgin,” then you are a frontrunner for the most worthy answer.

In 1982, Fast Times at Ridgemont High arrived in theaters and changed how teen movies were made. It was packed with belly laughs, cringe-worthy scenarios, and honest dramatic moments that captured what it meant to be a teenager. It spawned the careers of a whole new Hollywood acting generation and gave us Jeff Spicoli, an iconic embodiment of surfing culture and easygoing life. It gave us Cameron Crowe. It gave us a great soundtrack. It gave young people a chance to see a closer version of their reality shown onscreen.

The Last American Virgin came out that same year, and it did many of the same things. Only The Last American Virgin gets things wrong. Painfully, awfully, masochistically wrong.

The plot revolves around hapless protagonist Gary (Lawrence Monoson), a typical student, and his friends Rick (Steve Antin), the slick ladies' man, and David (Joe Rubbo), the larger comic relief character. Most of the plot involves their numerous attempts to have sex, which are usually successful for Rick and David, but never for Gary. A love triangle develops between Gary, Rick and Karen (Diane Franklin), a transfer student to their school and a virgin that Rick vows to deflower.

Meet the cast. I'm pretty sure you already know who everyone is based on the description above. 

Most of the film focuses on Gary’s awkward and unsuccessful attempts to lose his virginity, while also juxtaposed with his equally painful inability to express his burgeoning feelings for Karen. But while it might be a story that could be told with a spot of characterization or class, The Last American Virgin uses this story to show the worst effects of opening up to someone that you love. The fact that it plays these situations for comedy is a ridiculous representation of males in the 1980s.

The beginning of the movie shows the three boys trying to entice young girls to have sex with them by plying them with cocaine (it’s actually Sweet N’Low). In a fit of hilarity they go over to Gary's house, where he gets stuck with the homely and overweight female while the two more conventionally attractive girls have sex with his douchebag friends. Of course, the party must be broken up as Gary’s parents return with Gary having undressed himself and his partner, and with a topless conquest of Rick’s running into the room. The only thing missing from the movie is a Benny Hill-style montage of all the characters running around.

Other high points of the movie include when Gary finally loses his virginity to a hooker the three boys hire, only to find out that they have crabs. And since crabs are alive, they must be drowned, right? That’s about as funny as this movie gets. The pieces of teenage life that are pulled from teenage male insecurity are played for broad laughs. Measuring erections in a high school locker to see who has the biggest member. Peeping through a hole in the locker room to see the women’s shower. None of these are screamingly funny, and yet they exist in this universe as though these are clearly cultural truisms that are rites of passage for the young American male. 

Look, there’s something to be said about imitation as both the sincerest form of flattery; if so, The Last American Virgin laid its heart on the line when it copied several situations and plots from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  There’s also something to be said about being painfully honest. In this case, being too real destroyed the mainstream appeal of one film, while another went on to become a standard by which all teen films are measured today. The Last American Virgin is that first film, a generic (by today’s standards) teen movie that portrays actual dialogue and kids with a knockout punch of an ending. If you had problems with Pretty in Pink’s denouement, then this will be the equivalent of Million Dollar Baby. However, that element of reality is exactly why The Last American Virgin fails on very specific levels.

Honestly, in comparing these two movies one could simply say “One has Phoebe Cates, and the other doesn’t,” and it would settle the argument over which one is better. However, there’s something to be said about both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin as time capsules and as films.

Both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin share experiences of teenage life. Cameron Crowe famously used his investigative reporting of high schools as the basis for his screenplay of Fast Times. Virgin was a remake of writer/director Boaz Davidson’s Israeli film Eskimo Limon (1978). Limon focused on kids growing up in Tel Aviv and spotlighted their relationships with each other, along with women. Limon was such a success that it inspired eight sequels (!). Unsurprisingly, both movies focus on the issues of a group of varied individuals in California high schools.

Also, Fast Times didn't decide to have its male characters all have sex with the same prostitute. 

The main difference between the two is in the execution. Both movies feature a pair of teenage boys that fall for a blossoming young woman, and there is the tricky abortion subplot in each film. However, Davidson would never be have an inside angle into American teenage life like Crowe would, and this can be seen in everything ranging from song choice in scenes to the way that language is utilized. Davidson wrote a screenplay, while Crowe wrote about his experiences with high school students and made it more personable. Davidson was an adult writing about teenagers, while Crowe used his reporter’s instinct and combined it with a diary-like level of truth. One can tell the difference because The Last American Virgin has a plot (which is terribly structured), but Fast Times at Ridgemont High is set up more like American Graffiti in long-form fashion (and brilliantly structured).

There are certain ways that Fast Times at Ridgemont High approaches characters that also elevates them. The cast may be playing types, but they are evolving types. Take Judge Reinhold’s character of Brad Hamilton. He goes from a high-fiving, egotistic senior class king to a lowly fast food delivery driver who gets rejected by Heart guitarist – and future Mrs. Crowe – Nancy Wilson. By the end of his story arc, he’s lost every bit of social capital accrued by his position in athletics and has become a lowly convenience store clerk, a continual servant for the ever-stoned and erstwhile Spicoli. It’s not high art, but it is art couched in a recognizable reality.

Fast Times exists as a time capsule of 1980’s cinema because it gets the spirit of the times completely right. If anything, it could well be regarded as the first MTV-style movie, using bright colors and flashy editing to contemporary songs that teenagers were listening to on the radio. There’s a scene where Brad is washing his car to the Ravyns’ “Raised on the Radio” that feels so right as an encapsulation of all that his character enjoyed.

The Last American Virgin doesn’t do those honors. Instead, its humor seems to come from a checklist of things to include in a teen sex comedy. The influence of Porky’s is palpable throughout, seen in the locker room and shower scenes as well as the structure. What hurts this film is that the story it wants to tell is completely at odds with the broader style of the teen sex comedy genre. What’s funnier than boys having sex with a bawdy older prostitute than in Porky’s? How about her abject condemnation of each boy’s sexual prowess and their subsequent catching of crabs, which further illuminates the ideas that adulthood is nothing but a broken reality filled with disappointments? Tell me where the humor is located, please.

So let’s talk about that ending.

I don’t normally do spoilers, but it is impossible to talk about The Last American Virgin without discussing its ending because it is so different from the normal Hollywood trope. Indeed, this ending is so absolutely powerful and awful that it validates this long discussion. If you don’t want to know what happens, you can skip to the end of the analysis section. So, from here on, just know that you are missing out on a fantastic piece of entertainment.


The film ends with a hopeful Gary attending Karen’s birthday party, holding the gold locket that he scraped together to buy for his intended. He meets David dancing with a young girl to the Plimsouls’ classic “Zero Hour” while happily shaking hands and trading pleasantries with his friends. Finally, he finds out that Karen is in the kitchen, and an expectant, giddy Gary pulls open the door…

…to find Karen making out with Rick, a look of euphoria over her face. Gary stands in the doorway, lip quivering in disbelief and agony, as Karen finally makes eye contact with him, along with Rick. It’s not clear whether she mouths “Sorry” to Gary, but she stands there with a mixture of doubt and happiness as Rick looks back vacantly at his heartbroken friend. Gary leaves the party, saying nothing, and as James Ingram’s song “Just Once” plays over a silent scene, our protagonist drives home with tears streaming down his face, emotionally destroyed and broken. 

Fade to black, credits roll.

There are very few movies in this world that would dare to end on such a depressing note, much less comedies, and even fewer teen movies would dare to show this side of adolescent existence. The sheer unfairness of the scene is complimented by Ingram’s song, which highlights the belief that finally something good would happen to the narrator. But I’m guessing the resolution of the story is closer to reality for many people that watched the film, even without the hyperbole of the abortion storyline. Most people can admit it, they have given their all like Gary before, only to have their final efforts matter for naught.

Perhaps a closer cousin to The Last American Virgin would be The Last Picture Show (upon seeing the titles, “duh” comes to mind). Both films feature hapless protagonists that are stuck in their lots in life without hope of recourse, as well as dealing with elements of sexual frustration and longing for the girlfriend of their best friends. And while The Last Picture Show is more of a work of art in terms of structure, composition, and consistent themes, The Last American Virgin is more daring because it was a contemporary comedy speaking to younger audiences about what happened in life with unflinching brutality. Yes, the sexual humor and bawdiness of the entire thing is silly and repugnant at times, but so is life. Both movies are able to provide a unique portrayal of hope and unfulfilling life, which may be the epitome of teenage living.

But here’s the thing: Daring isn’t always going to mean that it’s a better film. The execution of The Last American Virgin is the worst part of the movie because it chooses to avoid treating the rich material underneath with any respect. Fast Times at Ridgemont High showed its teenaged cast as actual teenagers, people who faced problems and provided some answers and direction through their actions. Crowe and Heckerling gave their future superstars a chance to inhabit a simulation of reality, fleshing out these representations of a specific time into timeless performances.

The Last American Virgin takes its characters and treats them with absolute contempt, making sure even the audience gets spit in the face by the end. It’s a movie that wants to desperately be meaningful but hates itself and shows why it’s got the coldest heart of any teenage film ever produced. It yearns to teach and educate its viewers, but the lesson onscreen is much different than what it likely intended to produce.

In the end, The Last American Virgin isn’t a waste of time. It’s something much worse, like a promising young adult going astray: A waste of potential.

Here are some further links to The Last American Virgin and its creation and impact.

Eli Roth – Mr. Skin Interview (TOTALLY NSFW BECAUSE OF ADS. This feels like I’m recommending a Playboy interview, only much worse)

1 comment:

Cal Kotz said...
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