Early on in her career, Martha Coolidge was destined to be a subversive alternative to John Hughes’ 1980s teen comedies with films like Valley Girl (1983) and Real Genius (1985) that championed outsider-type protagonists that refused to be part of the status quo, which most movies of its ilk ultimately embraced. Sadly, after the surprise commercial and critical success of Valley Girl, Coolidge’s films struggled to find an audience and she moved onto the emerging independent film scene with Rambling Rose (1991). Wedged between it and Real Genius is Plain Clothes (1988), a film that, in retrospect, was a transition between her ‘80s teen comedies and the more mature fare of her 1990s output. The film was given limited distribution, was poorly reviewed and went largely ignored, but is a fascinating mash-up of the high school comedy and murder mystery with an eclectic cast led by underappreciated character actor Arliss Howard.
One day, a teacher stumbles into his classroom and promptly dies from a knife wound to the back, uttering the words, “Easy grader.” Meanwhile, we meet Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard) and his partner Ed (Seymour Cassel) busting a couple of punks while the former is posing as a traveling ice cream man. Nick is tired of being assigned cases where children are involved because he can’t stand them, never having a regular childhood himself.
He gets a call that his younger brother Matt (Loren Dean) has been accused of killing the aforementioned teacher at his high school. Coolidge playfully undermines the seriousness of the situation by having Matt take a “hostage” at a kids’ fairy tale playground only for much of the cute equipment smashed by an overzealous SWAT team. After being suspended for punching out a fellow detective that was badmouthing Matt, Nick decides to go undercover as a student named Nick Springsteen (“Any relation, dude?” a student asks him. “Distant,” he replies) and find out who killed the teacher and framed his brother.
Nick’s first day at school is a mixture of culture shock and barely concealed contempt for the meathead jocks that give him a hard time in the halls. He also has to endure mind-numbingly boring classes with the only saving grace being now that he’s a reasonably intelligent adult he is more confident and savvy about the whole high school experience.
Ever since seeing him in Full Metal Jacket (1987), I’ve been a fan of Arliss Howard’s work and always look forward to the rare opportunity of seeing him in a starring role like Plain Clothes. Part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Howard react to the various students and teachers Nick encounters during his investigation. He walks through the school with a bemused expression affixed to his face as he comes from the perspective of already having experienced it. This is a problem because Nick can’t get any of the students to trust him until he loosens up and starts acting like them. Howard does a nice job of maintaining a tricky balancing act of portraying a frustrated police detective posing as a student while conducting an investigation to clear his brother. He also gets some nice moments to display his acting chops, like the scene where Nick reads a very suggestive e.e. cummings poem in class that gets the girls and the teacher (Suzy Amis) all hot and bothered. It’s an excellent reading that Howard delivers with a slightly mischievous glint in his eye.
Plain Clothes’ supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, populated by veteran character actors like Seymour Cassel as Nick’s reliable partner, Diane Ladd as the mean school secretary, and Robert Stack as the absent-minded principal. Max Perlich, Abe Vigoda and George Wendt show up in smaller roles, adding to the offbeat atmosphere of the film. If there is one minor flaw it is the growing attraction between Nick and his English teacher. There doesn’t seem like much chemistry between Howard and Suzy Amis despite their best efforts to generate some.
At the start of 1985, aspiring screenwriter Scott Frank was hired by Paramount Pictures and worked with Lindsay Doran, an executive at the studio, who taught him how to write screenplays. He wrote Plain Clothes over approximately two years. Martha Coolidge was originally hired to direct Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). She spent months developing the script and working on pre-production only to be fired four days before principal photography. Producer John Hughes gave the job to Howard Deutch, a friend of his and whom he had a falling out with prior to Coolidge being hired. They rekindled their friendship and he got the job. Ned Tanen, then president of Paramount, met with Coolidge and apologized, offering her the job to direct Plain Clothes. Coolidge said of Frank’s script that it was “more of a fun-lark-of-a-murder-mystery-comedy.”
What few critics that saw Plain Clothes were not kind to it. In her review for the Sun Sentinel, Candice Russell wrote, “Coolidge and screenwriter A. Scott Frank don’t know what to make of this veteran cast. Nobody’s funny, though attempts are made in that direction.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “A little more complicated than most, and a little less interesting, Plain Clothes tries to combine a police investigation story with the usual classroom and locker-room stuff. Less would not necessarily have been more, but it would have been shorter.”
What I like about Plain Clothes is that it has more on its mind than being simply a teen comedy by also incorporating an engaging murder mystery. Even the comedy aspects are well done, slyly subverting their conventions thanks to Howard’s knowing performance. He’s our audience surrogate, acknowledging the genre conventions with a wry look and deadpan sarcastic replies timed to perfection. For example, he doesn’t really look young enough to pass for a high school student – a potential stumbling block for the audience, but to the film’s credit it works hard to make you forget it.
The consummate professional, Coolidge’s direction doesn’t draw attention to itself, getting out of the way of the actors and letting them do their thing, especially Howard who does some of his best work. She would go on to make several more films before seguing into television, including such notable efforts like the highly acclaimed made for T.V. movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and episodes of Sex and the City. Plain Clothes remains an oddball film that never found an audience and will hopefully be rediscovered on home video.
“Back to the 80s: Interview with Director Martha Coolidge.” Kickin’ It Old School. January 31, 2011.
Dawson, Nick. “Scott Frank, The Lookout.” Filmmaker magazine. March 30, 2007.
Insdorf, Annette. “Women Film Directors Make a Strong Comeback.” The New York Times. April 24, 1988.