Director James Frawley may not be the most recognizable name when it comes to directors, but he has had a hand in several projects that are important to me. He got his start directing many episodes of the classic 60’s series The Monkees. That alone makes him ok in my book, but then in 1979 he directed a little flick called The Muppet Movie. With achievements like that I’m willing to forgive him missteps like our film today. It’s spring break 1985 all over again in Fraternity Vacation.
The film centers on a few guys from the Theta Pi Gamma fraternity at Iowa State who head to Palm Springs for spring break. We have Joe (Cameron Dye) and Mother (Tim Robbins). By the way, Mother’s real name is Tucker, Mother is a nickname as in Mother Tucker. Deep man, deep. Oh, and we mustn’t forget Wendell (Stephen Geoffreys…Evil Ed from Fright Night), the nerdy guy whose cousin is letting the guys borrow his swinging pad. That’s the only reason geeky Wendell gets to tag along, but that gives the others a project…see to it that Wendell loses his virginity before the trip is done.
Wendell aside the other guys want some action too. Upon arrival, Joe spots the lovely young lady who will be his conquest for the week, Ashley (Sheree J Wilson). Problem is, two guys from a rival Iowa frat have also showed up (Leigh McCloskey and Matt McCoy) and they try to make the moves on Ashley, as well. So, a bet is struck to see who makes it with her first, and gets proof. Meanwhile, as Joe and Mother continue to strike out, Wendell is having his own adventures. He hooks up with a young lady named Nicole (Amanda Bearse), though they don’t actually “do it,” and even ends up in prison one night with a bunch of hookers. Not knowing all the facts, it seems to Joe and Mother that Wendell is scoring left and right. Eventually, though, Wendell does score for real…bet it takes you only one guess to figure out with who.
You know, there’s been a lot of controversy lately over celebrities and their political views and when it is and isn’t appropriate to spout them. Tim Robbins is one of those celebrities who is well known for being vocal about his beliefs. Movies like this are part of why I don’t put a whole lot of stock in what celebs have to say. Even if the guy managed to come up with a foolproof plan for world peace, his brain still at one time thought it wise to appear in a film like this. The characters in this film, with the possible exception of Wendell, are just plain vile. They spend the entire film doing things that are portrayed as being harmless spring break shenanigans, but which in real life should get these people arrested. Brought to you courtesy of the guy who first gave us Kermit the Frog on a bicycle.
I will say that Wendell is a fairly likable character. He’s a decent guy, just a bit socially awkward. I did find myself rooting him a bit. I probably would’ve cheered for him more had Stephen Geoffrey’s performance been a bit stronger. There’s a little bit too much gosh-golly-gee-whiz in his delivery to elevate Wendell above being a cartoon character. Honestly, the two primary female leads, Sheree J Wilson and Amanda Bearse, are far more interesting than any of the male characters.
When you get right down to it, Fraternity Vacation is sort of the ultimate trope dump for the 80’s teen sex comedy genre. You’ve got a warm beach locale, horny guys, a nerd who needs to get laid, pretty girls, nudity (not a lot but there is some in this film), high jinks that are somewhat illegal, it’s all here. It’s even got an annoying 80’s disc jockey played by Charles Rocket and Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon, as the token grumpy old guy. It’s all pretty standard stuff and not particularly well done. Though there is one thing this film does that you don’t see in others like it. It pulls a page from the The Wizard of Oz playbook by having its opening set in cold snowy Iowa done in black and white. Everything goes to color when they hit California. As someone who grew up in the snowy midwest I kind of resented the implications of using that technique. I didn’t have too much time to be offended, though, as I was too busy laughing at the people arriving at a snowy airport in Iowa carrying downhill skis. In fairness, I know there are a few ski areas in the Hawkeye State, but to a Coloradan, like myself, the scene looked a bit ridiculous.
There are a lot of bad 80’s teen sex comedies out there, but most at least have some sliver of charm to them. Sadly, it’s hard to even find that in Fraternity Vacation. It’s an unfunny and sloppily made example of a genre that isn’t exactly the height of filmmaking to start with.