I always consider 1984 to be the year that really got the teen movie trend of the 80’s going in a big way. It saw the release of films like The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds, and, most importantly, Sixteen Candles; the directorial debut of 80’s teen movie sage John Hughes. There are, however, a few teen films from 84 that did not reach the same heights of popularity. Take the private school comedy Making the Grade, starring Judd Nelson, an actor who would see his star rise the next year, thanks to Hughes casting him in The Breakfast Club.
Nelson plays Eddie Keaton, a small-time hustler who owes a bunch of money to a local crook known as “The Diceman” played by Andrew Dice Clay. While attempting to escape The Diceman’s goons, he ducks into a golf course where he encounters Palmer Woodrow (Dana Olsen), a rich kid who is trying to get out of being sent to the stuffy Hoover Academy. Now, the folks at Hoover have never met Palmer before, so he figures he can hire someone to take his place while he heads off to Europe to party. Eddie is the perfect man for the job.
Helped by Palmer’s friend Rand (Carey Scott), Eddie jumps into playing the role of Palmer. It takes him a while to adjust to the snooty types at the school, especially resident preppie bully Bif (Scott McGinnis). It doesn’t help matters when Eddie starts to make the moves on Bif’s girl, Tracey (Jonna Lee). Things also become a bit more challenging when The Diceman shows up on campus to claim his money, right at the same to that the real Palmer returns due to boredom.
Making the Grade has all the elements that we expect out of 80’s teen sex comedies. We’ve got a goofball leading man, wacky side characters, hot chicks, a bad guy who ties his sweaters around his neck…it’s all there folks. I don’t think we can really call this film a teen sex comedy, though. It’s actually quite tame when it comes to the suggestive elements and is very low on nudity. It doesn’t end up being a particularly funny film, but it does end up being enjoyable. Strangely, the less raunchy approach is actually somewhat refreshing in this case.
The film is certainly helped by having an appealing cast. Though Judd Nelson’s post-Breakfast Club career was not as stellar as what his castmates enjoyed, there’s no denying that he was one of the most magnetic personalities of the whole Brat Pack scene. Nelson’s likability is on full display here, and he’s convincing as his character goes from second-rate street hood to pseudo-preppie. Scott McGinnis was one of the go-to guys for playing the rich guy bully roles and he’s at the top of his game again here. An array of other familiar faces fill in the other supporting parts, including Gordon Jump as the head of the school, Dan Schneider as the obligatory chubby kid, and Ronald Lacey (yes, Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark) as one of The Diceman’s associates. The weak spot in the cast is Dana Olsen, who plays the actual Palmer Woodrow. I think the filmmakers were trying to make Palmer the obnoxious but charming character, but they forgot to add the charming part.
The Diceman, though, is the best thing about this film. It’s strange for me to say that. As comedians go, I find your average roll of paper towels to be funnier than Andrew Dice Clay. I fear, though, that the guy may have missed his true calling as he often excels as an actor…even in bad films. Here he plays a gangster type and is basically doing the “Dice” character he created for his standup routines. He manages to make the character both buffoonish and legitimately intimidating all at the same time. The film’s funniest moments are all courtesy of Dice
There’s nothing about Making the Grade, though, that we haven’t seen in a million other teen comedies. It’s got the have’s vs the have-nots, jocks vs geeks, etc, etc. It’s not very original, even as early in the teen movie game as 1984. Yet, it does it with a less debauched approach that makes it a bit easier to stomach.