If you were watching movies in the early to mid-1980’s you might have pegged Anthony Michael Hall as a sure-fire movie star in the making. He was the original Rusty Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”. He was the quintessential movie geek in the John Hughes films “Sixteen Candles”, “The Breakfast Club”, and “Weird Science”. Things were looking great.
But then Hall made a series of bad choices that ended up changing the course of his career. In fear of being typecast, he turned down meaty roles in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Pretty in Pink”. He was later offered the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” but skipped out after a lengthy contract negotiation. Instead he decided to star in the 1988 comedy “Johnny Be Good” with first-time director Bud Smith. It was a box office disappointment and a pretty dreadful movie to boot.
I remember it being a bit jarring to see Hall go from lovable nerd to football jock in such a short span, yet that’s his character in this shallow and often annoying spin on the college recruitment process. Hall plays Johnny Walker, the star quarterback for Ashcroft High School. He’s the toast of his town and the top recruit in the nation.
After the final game of his senior year (and yet another state championship) the offers from major colleges start pouring in. Johnny’s erratic best friend Leo (Robert Downey, Jr.) thinks he should hold out for the highest bidder. His girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) thinks he should stick with their plan of going to State college together. His slimeball high school coach (Paul Gleason) offers his influence to the highest college bidder.
Johnny eventually gets caught up in the attention and begins making campus visits where he’s wined and dined by coaches and alumni all wanting him to play ball for them. He is shamelessly offered money, cars, fancy clothes, even women. In other words, “Johnny Be Good” shows college recruitment in the dimmest and dumbest light – a crooked, hedonistic cesspool all played for laughs but with an utterly ineffective moral point tacked on at the end.
Hall doesn’t give a terrible performance despite the often dreadful material he’s asked to sell. The problem is he’s miscast. At times you can squint your eyes and buy into him as a football jock. Other times it’s simply too much for him to pull off. At least he’s more tolerable than what we get from a painfully irritating Robert Downey, Jr. In his review for the LA Times, Michael Wilmington compared RDJ’s blatherings to “Pee Wee Herman emerging from a coma“. It’s one of the funnier lines I’ve ever read in a movie review, but it’s also shockingly accurate.￼ Obviously Downey, Jr. has shown himself to be a fine actor, but here he’s asked to do the impossible – make us like and laugh at an obnoxious, doltish, and thoroughly unfunny character.
Uma Thurman may be the lone positive. The script barely allows us to see below the surface of her character. But Thurman does good with what she’s given, showing off why she would go on to have a great career. Unfortunately the movie itself can’t say as much. It didn’t do well in 1988 and it hasn’t stuck with many people sense. It was a serious misfire for Hall who never quite regained his early 80’s form and for Bud Smith who went back to editing and never directed another film. Unfortunately nothing has changed in 32 years. “Johnny Be Good” is still a bad movie and its faults stand out even more today.
VERDICT – 1.5 STARS