One of my favorite 80’s teen movies is Savage Steve Holland’s “Better Off Dead.” It was never a big hit, but thanks to VHS and many showings on cable TV, the John Cusack comedy almost instantly became a cult classic. Holland’s next film was “One Crazy Summer.” It, once again, starred Cusack and in many ways felt like somewhat of a sequel to “Better Off Dead.” A few years later came Holland’s, so far, final theatrical film. Oh, he’s stayed busy doing movies for Nickelodeon, but sadly, this unique director has yet to return to the cinema. This swan song is probably the least known of his three theatrical efforts…1989’s “How I Got into College.”
The film centers on Marlon Browne (Corey Parker), a high school senior who is not exactly honor roll material as he looks toward college. He really has no idea where he wants to go to school, and his prospects don’t look that great. In fact, his buddy Oliver (Christopher Rydell) is trying to convince Marlon to join him in skipping college and hitchhiking around the world with him. We also meet over-achiever Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle), who Marlon has had a crush on for years. She can get into pretty much any school she wants…but she’s got her heart set on Ramsey College. When Marlon learns this, he decides this is also the school for him.
The story also takes us to the campus of Ramsey from time to time. There the admissions staff are having some struggles of their own. Some the team, led by Kip Hammett (Anthony Edwards) and Nina Sachie (Finn Carter), are out to find interesting young people, even if they’re “numbers” aren’t the best. But their slimey co-worker Leo (Charles Rockett) is all about finding kids with the best test scores…forget the rest.
Meanwhile, Marlon has signed up for a course to help him through his SAT tests, run by a team that guarantees success (Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn). During all this madness, Marlon and Jessica begin to develop a friendship as she learns he is also applying to Ramsey. It seems like Jessica will have no trouble getting in to Ramsey, that is, until she cracks during her interview. She ends up deciding not to apply at all. Now, Marlon has to convince her to try, and the two set out to deliver her application to the campus before the deadline.
This film was released just as I was getting ready to leave high school behind and enter the world of college…so it has always resonated with me. I admit it’s not the greatest film, but I find it very funny. The humor has a, shall we say “cartoony” style to it, which was the case with Holland’s other films. Understandable considering he has a background in animation. Many of the funniest moments come from some of the supporting players in brief appearances. Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn are perfect as the smarmy SAT coaches. Dang, we lost Hartman way too soon! I also love seeing Curtis Armstrong (yep…Booger) as a recruiter from a Bible College, and I completely crack up every time I see Taylor Negron’s brief moment as a thoroughly bored with life mailman. He also plays a mailman in “Better Off Dead.”
Still, the most memorable supporting parts, and I think one of the most ingenious bits in this movie, are Man A and Man B, played by Bruce Wagner and Tom Kenney (future voice of SpongeBob Squarepants). Remember those stupid test questions? You know…Two men are in a race…if Man A runs 15 miles per hour and Man B runs 10 miles per hour…blah blah blah. Well, every time Marlon takes a test, we see Man A and Man B acting out these situations. They scream at Marlon as he tries to answer the questions. It’s a very funny premise.
Even with all this silly cartoonish humor, I still think there is a certain honesty to this film. The lead characters are very believable…speaking from personal experience of being a high school senior in 1989. I knew many Jessica Kailos…and actually, just like Marlon, had crushes on one or two of them. Truth be told, I was a lot more like Marlon than I care to admit. And yep…I went to those stinkin’ SAT prep classes, too. There’s also a undeniable sweetness to the film. Certainly in the blossoming love story between Marlon and Jessica, and even more so in the side story of Vera Cook (Tischa Arnold), a hard-working inner-city youth trying to move beyond flipping burgers and make it to college.
This may be a goofy teen comedy, but it is quite well made. Holland shows a lot of creativity in his approach to comedy and I for one would love to see him direct for the big screen again. It’ll probably never reach the cult status of “Better Off Dead,” but “How I Got into College” is a fun final chapter in the Savage Steve Holland trifecta