Saturday, January 24, 2009

Joy of Sex (1984)

AKA National Lampoon's Joy of Sex
Directed by Martha Coolidge
Starring Michelle Meyrink, Colleen Camp, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Langois, Christopher Lloyd
Rated R
Buy this bitchin' poster!

"I just read that preppies are out and yuppies are in."
"Hmm. Maybe I should go on the pill."

Nominally (but not really) based on Alex Comfort's 1979 millions-selling sexual handbook, Joy of Sex was one of National Lampoon's early forays into the tawdry teen genre. They are still milking that particular cow thirty years later, but very rarely do they approach the wit and invention of Martha Coolidge's fluffy little film. The hymen-thin plot involves one Leslie Hindenberg (Michelle Meyrink, best known as the cool-nerd love interest in 1985's Real Genius), a frustrated virginal high school student who misdiagnoses a mole as cancer and, assuming that she's going to die soon, decides she's got to pop her cherry before she shuffles off this mortal coil.

That's pretty much it, although there's a couple of running sub-plots involving chesty new girl Liz Sampson (Colleen Camp, 31 years old at the time they were filming), a drug-obsessed tough-talker who is driving all the boys crazy with her tight sweaters and gum-snapping, and Farouk (Danton Stone), an easily confused Middle-eastern exchange student who is constantly garbling teenage vernacular ("Excuse me, but why are some students getting stoned? Isn't this cruel and unusual punishment?") Every so often there's also a seemingly random scene, such as the bit where the school janitor attacks a trophy case full of Mr. Potato Heads with a blow torch, or when Alan (Cameron Dye) fantasizes about ravishing his nerdy science teacher.

Ok, so the premise is pure screwball corn, but despite it all, Joy of Sex is still one of the more realistic portrayals of high school life in the 1980's. Had it been shot today, pretty boy lead Max (Charles Van Eman) would have already sexed the entire cheerleader team and half the faculty. Here, he's on his way to 18 and still hasn't gotten laid. Sex wasn't so easy to get back before they invented Craigslist. The kids don't always make sense in this movie either ("Fate is calling you Les, don't get a busy signal"), and that's also pretty accurate. Teenagers aren't known for consistency. And seriously, who but a hormone-mad teenager would buy mom-aged Colleen Camp as one of their own?

Leslie sets her sights on nice-guy Max. Max's brother Alan decides to tame Liz Sampson. Farouk wanders in and out scenes, muttering about life back home:
"You know back in Abu Dhabi, it's the woman who sits in the ass of the car."
After several fizzling attempts, Leslie manages to get Max all to herself in her dad's car on a moonlit night at the local cemetery. A weird place to park, but whatever.

Max is wary, since Leslie's dad (Christopher Lloyd) is the wrestling team's loony coach, and he's announced several times that he'll "eat the balls" of any man who defiles his daughter. Leslie tries to ease Max's troubled mind with some Seals and Crofts lyrics:
"We're all alone," she coos. "And we may never pass this way again."
The couple starts to get busy, but Max fumbles around too much and ends up kicking the emergency break, causing the car to roll down a hill and crash into an open grave.
So that didn't work out too well.

Meanwhile, at the drive-in (chopsocky classic Queen Boxer is playing), Alan is working up a sweat on the leatherette with Liz, when she suddenly stops him.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," she tells him in her machinegun staccato.
"A great deal. Too much."
She explains to him that she is not actually a student, but a narc, working undercover to break up a school-wide dope ring. She'll make her arrests tomorrow, and Alan will never see her again. Unless...
"Even though I'm 30 and you're 17, I'm really attracted to you, Alan," says Liz. "Of course, having sex with a minor could get me thrown off the force. I have a career to consider. But honestly Alan, I get all hot and weak whenever I'm kissing you. Let's not talk about wasted youth, Alan. Kiss me again and the woman in me will throw this badge out the window and live for the now."
"Wait a minute, Liz," says Alan, trying to hold her off. "It is Liz, isn't it?"
"Kathy," she says, nuzzling his neck. "Kathy Reagan. No relation."
80's joke.
Alan freaks out completely, and peels off.
If there were some sort of Oscar-y award for low-budget teen-scuzzfilm performances, Camp would have certainly won an armful for that scene. Oh, and in the next car over, Max, Farouk and a few other numbskulls light their farts on fire until the roof of their car blows off. Hijinks!

Leslie spends the next half-hour or so trying desperately to get laid, first with an old boyfriend who turns out to be gay, and then with a boorish local newscaster, Ted Stevens (Paul Tulley) who she's had a crush on. Unfortunately, when she tries to utilize a diaphragm for the first time, it gets stuck on the ceiling, and she bails.

So, will Max fall in love with Leslie's hot best friend Melanie (former Miss Teen Canada runner-up Lisa Langois)? Yep. Will Leslie figure out she's not dying and fall in love with Max's brother Alan? Yep. Will the movie end in a costume ball turned drug-fueled orgy? How could it not? Skimpy on overt sexuality but packed tits-high with memorable performances from fresh-faced kids and familiar faces (Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson is the uptight school principal, Laverne and Shirley nemesis Carole Ita White is a horny plumber, Christopher Lloyd gets a blowjob!), Joy of Sex is kinda dumb and kinda smart. Just like most high schoolers. Unlike most high-schoolers, it's actually fun to be around.

In conclusion: Director Martha Coolidge fought bitterly with Paramount over Joy of Sex prior to its release. Some bullshit about nudity. Since there isn't any in the film, I am unsure who won that particular scuffle. Coolidge considered taking an Alan Smithee credit on the final product, but ultimately shrugged it off, correctly assuming she'd go on to greener pastures regardless. The controversy may have put a pallor on the film, because there's really no reason why it should still be languishing in virtual obscurity, without even the hint of a DVD release. Unlike a good 69% of the teen sex comedies of the 1980's, Joy of Sex is actually funny, and frequently so; it's also got some great character actors and appealing leads. Breezy and fun, Joy of Sex is well worth seeking out, even in it's current grainy, 25-year old VHS incarnation.

Martha Coolidge was a veritable master at the frothy teen-com, having helmed the classic Valley Girl a year before, and Val Kilmer's greatest moment, Real Genius, a year after. Although she left the genre back in the 80's, where it belongs, she's still working, mostly in television. Most recently, she's directed episodes of Weeds and Psych. Michelle Meyrink was on her way to bonafide cult actress with roles in The Outsiders (1983), Valley Girl (1983) Real Genius (1985) and Nice Girls Don't Explode (1987), but she also left teen coms behind at the tail end of the 1980's and has since become some sort of hardcore Zen Buddhist back home in Vancouver. The now very flannel-y Meynick can be seen spreading the word of quiet living in the recent Zen-umentary Chop Wood, Carry Water. Here's a clip.

Colleen Camp was, of course, already a bonafide cult actress at this point, having appeared in seminal drive-in window-steamers like The Swinging Cheerleaders, The Last Porno Flick (both 1974), Ebony, Ivory and Jade (1976), The Seducers, Love and the Midnight Auto Supply (both 1977), etc. She appeared in a fistful of cheeseball comedies in the 80's (Rosebud Beach Hotel, 1984; Police Academy 2, 1985;Screwball Academy, 1986), and has been doing steady character work ever since, including an uproarious stint as the most irritating Hollywood agent imaginable in Laura Kightlinger's brilliant but short-lived series The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman (2007). She is a certified B-movie goddess with one of the all-time great racks, and we enthusiastically salute her.

Availability: Joy of Sex is available on VHS.

-Ken McIntyre

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