If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about comedies it’s when the script shortchanges the straight man. The funny guy gets to have a full range of emotions, but if the straight man complains about patently obnoxious behavior he’s a wet blanket.
For example, Planes, Trains and Automobiles lets John Candy be invasive, loud and rude, but when Steve Martin asks this total stranger who won’t leave him alone for some space we’re supposed to see him as an asshole. In Meet the Parents Robert DeNiro is portrayed as being uptight and judgmental because he gets mad at Ben Stiller when Stiller nearly kills the family dog and almost sets fire to DeNiro’s house in the first 48 hours he was visiting, even though that’s the only logical response he should have to such terrible behavior. And in License to Drive we’re supposed to root for teenage Corey Haim to get away with stealing his dad’s car while he’s grounded so he can go on a covert date with the hottest girl in school because clearly his dad doesn’t remember what it was like to be 16 and stranded without wheels.
Here’s the thing: I could sympathize with Haim’s predicament if he wasn’t so awful and if his dad wasn’t so right. Haim deserved to be grounded: he pretended to have gotten his driver’s license even though he failed the test miserably and he let his parents congratulate him with champagne without saying anything. Then he took the car when he knew he wasn’t supposed to be driving, and he kept it for longer than he said he would have it, greatly inconveniencing his dad, who was trying to get home with a bunch of groceries. I know Haim is desperate and hormonal, but he is basically a giant asshole in this movie – a habitual liar who doesn’t care for anybody but himself. His dad is trying to steer him away from being a sociopath, which in my book makes the underappreciated dad the hero of this movie.
And when I say sociopath I mean sociopath. When Haim’s one-date girlfriend gets too drunk to stay awake he stashes her body in the trunk like a total creep instead of taking her home, then when he catches his best friend taking photos of her in her bra while she’s passed out Haim doesn’t do the right thing and call out his friend for basically being a rapist. I just can’t root for this adolescent toolbag to have the freedom he wants because he is clearly going to abuse that freedom in really gross ways. (It is a miracle he doesn’t kill anyone with his purloined car, but I suppose unjust miracles are to be expected in movies like this.)
I suppose I had such a strong reaction because I saw this movie that was clearly aimed at teens when I’m old enough to be the father of a teenager. It might have more charm for someone who was younger and more carefree than me. But the whole time Haim was worrying about whether or not he was going to get away with all of these stunts without his father knowing, I was thinking about his poor father, who was being treated like an obstacle just because he didn’t want his son to turn out to be a self-indulgent pathological liar sex criminal. I kept thinking: no, the dad’s right, this kid is a disappointment, and his assholeness is a problem, not a joke.
Winner: The Cat