Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fraternity Vacation (1985)

Directed by James Frawley
Starring Stephen Geoffreys, Sheree J. Wilson, Tim Robbins, Amanda Bearse
Rated R

“Astronomy major Wendell Tvedt has studied galaxies, charted planets and pondered the universe. But in Palm Springs, he’ll encounter his first full moon.”

Get it? Full moon? Yeah, I get it, too. As it turns out, the tagline to Fraternity Vacation, a tame-but-tolerable entry into the teen sex comedy category, is fairly indicative of the general level of grins contained within.

It was right smack in the middle of the 1980’s when New World Pictures launched this modest attempt to lure some of the same crowd who’d made Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Risky Business, and Revenge of the Nerds such huge hits. Of course, anyone who remembers the decade wouldn’t need to be told when this one was made, as the clothes, hair, and nonstop-MTV-vibe peg it as such well before the first Bananarama-backed montage.

The story mostly follows the familiar coming-of-age-gotta-get-the-virgin-laid trajectory found in many such films, perhaps borrowing a little more from Revenge of the Nerds than most thanks to its promotion of nebbish Wendell Tvedt as hero, played by Stephen Geoffreys (Fright Night, 976-EVIL).

As is explained by a brief opening sequence, Wendell is pledging the Theta Pi Sigma fraternity at Iowa State University. Frigid, snowy weather means he and two of the frat brothers -- Joe Gillespie (Cameron Dye) and Larry “Mother” Tucker (Tim Robbins) -- are especially looking forward to an Easter break trip to Palm Springs. Joe and Larry probably wouldn’t be vacationing with Wendell -- a self-described “late bloomer” -- if not for the fact that it is his cousin’s condo to which they’re traveling and Wendell’s parents have paid for the trip.

Just before they leave, Wendell’s dad takes Joe and Larry aside and asks them if they could teach Wendell “a few of the tricks of the trade... with the opposite s-e-x.” Mr. Tvedt, whom we later learn is a wealthy pig farmer, tells the pair he’ll make it worth their while should they agree to provide such tutelage by putting a new sauna and jacuzzi in their frat house.

Incidentally, in a non-subtle, wannabe-arty-kind-of-flourish, this opening sequence at Iowa State is shot in black-and-white, necessarily making Palm Springs seem all the more colorful once the trio arrives. However, all is not so rosy, as it is immediately clear once they arrive Wendell might cramp Joe and Larry’s style.

So what do our fun-loving frat boys and their pledge do upon arrival? Shop for clothes, of course!

Huh? That’s right. It’s our first montage sequence. And first Bananarama song (of several on the soundtrack.)

Also in Palm Springs are other Iowa State students, including J.C. (Matt McCoy) and Chas (Leigh McCloskey) from the rival Beta Espilon house. “Betas hate Thetas,” we’re told. “It’s a tradition.” When they spot Larry, Joe, and Wendell, seeds of an impending conflict are quickly sewn.

The guys arrive at the weirdly-furnished condo -- no furniture in the living room, a decked-out master bedroom with a mirrored ceiling, and a kids’ room with bunk beds. Kind of contrived, but we can see that this arrangement will dictate only one resident is going to be able to entertain female company at a time.

After spending a few moments using Wendell’s telescope to leer at some of the bikini-clad babes at the pool, as well as one blonde in particular at a neighboring balcony...

...the guys head down to start their vacation in earnest.

Joe and Larry immediately hook up with a couple of comely co-eds -- Marianne and Chrissie -- whom we recognize as having earlier been riding with the Betas. They bring the girls upstairs, and when the bedroom situation is explained, the girls seem even more ready and willing than the guys initially suspected.

“I’ve always found that four people on a queen-sized bed can be very cozy,” says Marianne. “Marianne and I are best friends... we do everything together” says Chrissie. They all quickly head into the bedroom, and the two strip while the guys watch.

Too good to be true, right? Right. Before anything can happen, some talk of herpes from the girls frighten Joe and Larry, and soon the Betas appear to celebrate this uncertain little “trick” they’ve pulled. Some macho talk follows, and before long the four make a $1,000 bet to see who among them can be the first to succeed in seducing a mutually-selected girl.

The beauty on the balcony is chosen, and the game begins. As the first act fades out, Wendell goofily grins at the mysterious blonde swimming by, perhaps suggesting another possible outcome to the contest.

That night they head to a nightclub, where Madman Mac (Charles Rocket) is the DJ. Madman Mac plays more Bananarama, wears underwear on the outside of his jeans, and says things like “Where’s the beef?” Rocket wasn’t exactly soaring high, career-wise, at this moment, it seems.

Joe and Larry give Wendell some instructions on meeting women, telling him to consider “mediocre-looking” women as more realistic targets. “Obviously what you’re after here is a night of passion,” says Joe. “Or at least a blow job in the parking lot,” adds Larry.

Wendell approaches Nicole Ferret, played by Amanda Bearse who also co-starred with Geoffreys in Fright Night before becoming best known for her role as Marcy on Married with Children. Wendell really is hopeless, and when his first few lines fail, he bumbles into actually requesting that parking lot blow-job. Improbably, the line works -- sort of -- at least well enough for Nicole to invite Wendell to leave the club for some ice cream.

A problem here early on is that we really barely know Wendell at all and so are only vaguely curious about what happens to him -- never mind care much what does. Perhaps that montage sequence might have been better filled with a bit more introduction of the main character to get us a little more invested.

Later on Joe and Larry return to the condo and are stunned to hear Wendell and Nicole in the master bedroom. They assume he’s managed to score in Palm Springs before either of them has, although in reality Wendell and his date are having strictly PG-rated fun, highlighted by Wendell singing Wayne Newton songs to Nicole.

The Betas-Thetas bet continues, with Wendell suddenly moving over into the role of advising Joe and Larry. The next half-hour is then taken up with the various schemes being employed by the frat guys to land the blonde (Sheree J. Wilson) who strangely appears in a few scenes before we ever learn her name -- Ashley.

Joe, Larry, J.C., and Chas take a sauna together, and Wendell visits before going for another date with Nicole. After he’s gone, the Betas refer to him as a “wimp.” “He’s off to pick up his girlfriend while we’re hear sweating our asses off with a bunch of guys,” his future frat brother Thetas fire back. “Think about it.”

A contrast quickly develops between the lying, deceitful frat guys, convinced they have to make up outlandish stories to bag a babe, and innocent Wendell whose honest -- if dim-witted -- approach to the ladies seemingly proves much more successful.

The Thetas’ plan involve pretending Joe is suicidal following a break-up, the idea being to solicit Ashley’s sympathy. Meanwhile, the Betas’ Chas poses as an author of an academic study, Mind, Body, and Sex, hoping to impress Ashley with his guru-like wisdom and workout techniques.

Another montage sequence follows, this one mostly involving Ashley working out to a Madonna-like song, “Physical Attraction.” Chas -- the Beta brother hoping to win the bet with Ashley -- comes along and we get to witness a rare instance of seduction by pommel horse.

As we move into the final third of the film, Wendell gets into a jam after a colossal misunderstanding lands him in jail for attempted rape. Adding to the fun, the police chief is Nicole’s father, played by Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon. The Chief doesn't like the college kids who invade Palm Springs every spring. And he especially hates boys who try to get anywhere with his daughter. All of which means he has more than double-secret probation in mind for a delinquent like Wendell.

A series of plot twists ensue, some more believable than others, and a resolution of sorts is finally reached. Along the way, we do get to see more of pretty Ashley (sort of, with stunt boobs provided by a fairly obvious body double). There are more poolside antics. A car gets wrecked. Madman Mac returns to spin more synth-driven tunes. John Vernon’s character gets called “Chief Buttface” a few times. And there’s still another musical montage involving Ashley moodily driving a car to a Cars’ “Drive” sound-alike.

The cast might make this one a curiosity to some, with the obviously-talented Robbins doing his best and the others managing their roles as well as could be expected. And like his character in the film, Stephen Geoffreys is an actor who possesses a kind of underdog-like charm which has garnered him a small cult following. No shortage of talent among the actors here, really, whom one might say the script ultimately lets down a bit.

Not to be overly judgmental of a film clearly more interested in conveying entertainment than edification, but the general lack of character development does get in the way of things some toward the conclusion, making it unclear at times what exactly is motivating some of them by story’s end.

All could be forgiven more quickly if the jokes landed more frequently, but it too often seems like watching people yelling “party” and slamming beers is thought to be enough to entertain us.

Or full moons... hahahahaha...

- Triple S

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