Ink still wet on his MIT degree, Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) is back in hometown Los Angeles, waiting for his future to clarify itself while he loiters behind the counter at Suncoast Video, hawking VHSes of Harry and the Hendersons because it’s, like, totally 1988. Inspiration comes when Matt re-encounters his unrequited high school crush, Tori (Teresa Palmer). Improvising blasé cool and some impressive line about a job with Goldman Sachs, Matt decides to follow Tori to an end-of-the-summer beer bust being thrown by the pop-collared yuppie who happens to be dating Matt’s twin sister, Wendy (Anna Faris).
The Franklins form a trio with Matt’s friend Barry (Dan Fogler), an aspirant Gordon Gekko of peasant stock, newly unemployed, unstable, and determined to make up in one binge for his missed college experience. What follows is a one-crazy-night odyssey, with the three wandering apart and reconnecting. Matt manages to get Tori alone, bonding through a series of cutely risqué party games; the idea is that these 23-year-olds are still coy innocents at heart. Plump clown Barry, meanwhile, piles on the cocaine and Bartles & Jaymes, cavorts like a flop-sweaty satyr, and has an interlude with ’80s cover girl Angie Everhart in a scene of creepy sexual negotiation that breathes the rarefied air of true lunacy only strained for elsewhere.
Other actors cast for their identification, whether direct or oblique, with the Reagan era include Michael Biehn, playing the Franklin family’s cop patriarch, and Michael Ian Black, the talking-head perennial on VH1’s I Love the . . . abominations. Scripted by That ’70s Show writers Jackie and Jeff Filgo, Take Me Home Tonight opens with a geyser of decade signifiers, and moves to a playlist of instantly recognizable DJ cues, including Duran Duran, “Bette Davis Eyes,” and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. The envisioned audience isn’t the 45-year-olds who grew up immersed in this stuff, but kids who missed it the first time around, the market for American Apparel legwarmers and retro-themed club nights. (Take Me Home Tonight, filmed in 2007 and shelved in purgatory, may have missed the boat: I recently had the mortifying experience of seeing a roomful of undergraduates at a “ ’90s Night” dancing to “MMMBop.”)
Wendy wears New Wave lapel buttons; Barry, identified in the Class of 1984 Yearbook opening titles as a Reaganite, sports stockbroker suspenders and a Sun Tzu paperback, and hooks up with a slutty Cure fan. But these costumes and accoutrements are purely art-department concerns. Pop-culture identification doesn’t interact in any meaningful way with the story, revealing neither character nor social milieu: Lily-white Matt and Barry lip-synching along with the “niggas” in “Straight Outta Compton” is taken at face value, as is a later instance of police corruption accompanied by a jocular “We’re the LAPD!” In this respect, it’s worth comparing Take Me Home Tonight to Greg Mottola’s Adventureland. The movies examine the same period and share cinematographer Terry Stacey, whose swoony nocturnal Los Angeles (actually Phoenix) of floodlit patios and fireworks is one of Take Me Home Tonight’s greatest merits. But where Adventureland announced an allegiance to freak-scene ’80s culture and made a vital detail of one character’s fluffing the title of a Lou Reed song, there’s nothing so specific in Take Me Home Tonight, lazily named after an Eddie Money hit. It’s the difference between a personal period memory and one-size-fits-all nostalgia.
It’s not a total wash. Faris’s ample talents are squandered with a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go romantic dilemma, but there’s just enough of Demetri Martin doing a prick act, and Fogler excels as a Rabelaisian dynamo. Grace, with his alert small-dog anxiety, is adept at this kind of light comedy and makes a handsome couple with Palmer, her fine-boned face under a towering hairspray forelock. Unfortunately, the throwback trappings include the formulaic conflict in Matt and Tori’s courtship. Don’t lie about your job to the girl you like, fellas—you always have to fess up at the end of the second act.