Years ago, when Jamie Lee Curtis was being interviewed about her career, she mentioned that despite starring in a number of bona fide classics, there were one or two cinematic skeletons lingering in her closet. Chief among them is 1999’s Virus, an easily forgettable space thriller which the actress reportedly accepted when another project fell through, and 1984’s Grandview, USA, a coming-of-age piece of Americana that I’m fairly certain she, along with everyone associated with it, believed would simply vanish forever. There’s no doubt the project must have appealed to Curtis initially as it was an early leading role for her that wasn’t tied to the horror/thriller genre. But the actress’s strong feelings towards the film made me highly curious to watch it when Kino Lorber released Grandview, USA on Blu-ray recently. I simply had to investigate the cause of Curtis’s attitude towards it and see just how right she was.
In Grandview, USA, 18-year-old Tim (C. Thomas Howell) has just graduated from high school and is wondering what he is going to do with his life. After a disastrous prom date leads him to the local roller derby run by the tough-as-nails, yet incredibly alluring Mike (Curtis), Tim finds himself quickly intrigued. However, there’s trouble in the form of the local city council, who want the land Mike’s fledgling business is on for development purposes. Armed with Tim and local driver Slam (Patrick Swayze), Mike fights to keep from letting the city take over the derby.
There’s no getting around it. Grandview, USA is as cheesy as its plot makes it sound and even cheesier to watch play out in ways that extend far beyond just the casting of former teen idol Troy Donahue as the neighborhood casanova. The film, directed by Grease helmer Randal Kleiser, tries to give off that feeling of good-ole Americana that the director’s most famous film did and bring it to the ’80s. It seems as if everyone involved with the conception of the film wanted to remind audiences at the time of the decade they were living in since there are ’80s references galore here, including a little girl wearing a Barry Manilow t-shirt and a number of shameless plugs for the then still-new MTV network. Meanwhile, the musical numbers Tim dreams about (inspired by the music video age) are laughable in their campiness, and will surely elicit good-natured laughs from everyone, whether they were around in the ’80s or not. Furthermore, there’s a great amount of head shaking at certain plot elements, such as how Mike allows Tim to compete in the derby without any previous experience whatsoever and how Slam decides to destroy his own house with a bulldozer.
It would be easy to assume that a film with all of the above elements wouldn’t leave much room for depth. And yet, there are moments sprinkled throughout Grandview, USA which feel utterly real and honest. More than anything, there’s a genuine human element that’s surprisingly tender within all the cheese on display. I have to admire the in-between state Tim is in with regards to choosing what world he wants to belong to. His attraction to Mike isn’t simply because she’s a hot chick. It’s because her life is everything his isn’t, and her world seems exciting and alien. Likewise, there’s a true soulfulness behind Mike’s tough exterior, which Curtis wonderfully shows. Her life has made her tough, but there’s so much more to her than that. The moment when a character in the film has all but destroyed everything at stake is made incredibly beautiful by the gentility she shows towards him. Mike is a great character. It’s just a shame that the movie doesn’t deserve her.
It’s more than a little odd seeing Howell as a wide-eyed high school graduate, but he brings the right kind of innocence to the part, even if it happens to be the dullest of his career. It;s certainly fun to see him and other members of the cast (including Jennifer Jason Leigh as Swayze’s cheating wife) in early roles. Swayze’s part doesn’t require much from him, but receives his solid commitment anyway, reminding us once again of what a great talent the actor was and how much he’s sorely missed.
As for Curtis, who was still trying to build up her resume as an actress at the time, the film is clearly beneath her, even though the character of Mike isn’t. This is a great role for the actress, playing on her strengths and allowing her to show both her toughness as well as her vulnerability in a way she hadn’t been able to up until then. In her hands, the actress hones in on Mike’s strength, independence, and determination, making them shine and taking the film to a higher level whenever she’s on screen. I’ve always felt Curtis to be undervalued as an actress, robbed of at least two potential Oscar nominations (Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda), and generally never given the same due that the Michelle Pfeiffers and Julianne Moores of the world have received. However, only an actress of her skill can take the apple pie-like quality of something like Grandview, USA and take it to a place that even its own creators never thought it could go.
Despite her authoritative vantage point, Curtis is ultimately wrong about Grandview, USA. The film isn’t bad, its just not as tightly wound as it should be for some of the plot points to feel honest and real. Maybe its because despite the easygoing feel which dominates the film, Kleiser might not have been the best one to bring it to the screen. He seems unsure about how to handle the film’s more serious moments while trying to make the film about too many people’s stories simultaneously. Apologies Ms. Curtis, but Grandview, USA is a serviceable, if instantly disposable, piece of escapist fare. However there’s no denying the atrociousness of Virus. I’m with you on that one.
Grandview, USA is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.