“Class” (1983) opens with a pair of prep school semi-bros, Skip (Rob Lowe) and Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy), pulling ostensible comic pranks on one another and concludes, an hour and a half later, with Skip and Jonathan in a bout of fisticuffs. And not funny fisticuffs, mind you, but serious fisticuffs, like their valor is at stake. It underscores how the movie begins as a comedy but ends as a drama, a shift in tone that seems entirely deliberate, as if director Lewis John Carlino, whose previous directing credit was the well-received “The Great Santini”, yearned to chronicle Jonathan transforming from Boy to a Man. To do this, however, it riffs on “The Graduate” in such a way as to suggest nothing was taken from that seminal 1967 film other than Young Dude sleeps with Older Lady.
As the film opens, Jonathan has arrived at the eerily New England-ish Chicago prep school Vernon Academy, intent on getting into Harvard, so intent that he confesses to Skip he cheated on his SAT. All this has left Jonathan tightly wound, and the only corrective as Skip sees it, as he must, is to send young Jonathan out to get laid. Sure enough, Jonathan does, though to an older woman, Ellen (Jacqueline Bisset), he meets at a bar, who, in a bout of adolescent male wish fulfillment, feels sorry for him and decides to seduce him quickly seduces him, prompting him to fall in faux-love. The ultimate problem, however, is no the faux-love, and it’s not even Jonathan’s age, which Ellen discovers which causes her to flee. No, the real problem is that Ellen is Skip’s mom.
He doesn’t know she’s Skip’s mother, of course, just as she doesn’t know he’s Skip’s roommate. They don’t realize this until Jonathan goes home with Skip for the holiday where an unwitting Ellen waits. And it is here that the movie strains to leave its adolescent hijinks behind. This could have become a 1980s version of a French bedroom farce, considering a married woman and her one time too young lover are under the same roof, but boy does “Class” want to take this seriously – no, no, no, “Class” does take this seriously. It just doesn’t know how to take something this serious seriously, as evinced by the film’s score, which is composed by the great Elmer Bernstein, who almost seems to be quoting his own iconic theme for “The Magnificent Seven”, lifting certain moments of purported grand drama to the height of awesome unintentional parody.
Rob Lowe, after all, is no Yul Brynner, and Andrew McCarthy isn’t Steve McQueen. No, McCarthy succeeds best when he doesn’t really do anything, allowing his boyish face to do all the work, like he did in “Pretty in Pink”, and when he’s asked to express rue and rage in “Class”, he founders. The closest “Class” gets to any kind of acting weight is when Bisset, at the dinner table, in the moments right after she has learned who Jonathan is, allows her hand to tremble as she downs goblets of wine, hinting at something rumbling underneath. This is the most visceral moment in the whole movie. It’s the only visceral moment in the whole movie.
Beyond that, it more or less gives up on even the pretense of caring what Ellen thinks about this situation, or what she thinks in general. We get the vague notion of a marriage gone stale, sure, but not much more, and her character confusedly tells Jonathan to go away before repeatedly calling him on the phone to meet her like semi- stalker. In the end, she gets shipped off to the psych ward, a development we are told about without ever seeing, and she is never heard from again.
That’s because “Class” really has no idea what to do with the character, and it has no idea how Skip actually feels about what she does with Jonathan. Skip’s reaction is to give Jonathan the silent treatment and then, when given the chance to rat Jonathan out for the latter’s SAT deception, keeping quiet, which merely seems to be meant as criticism of Jonathan’s breaking of the bro code by sleeping with his mom and not telling. Or something. Who knows? Rather than hash anything out, they get in a brawl that leaves them muddied and bloodied.
In its length, this fight, ranging from campus to the woods to the dormitory, recalls Roddy Piper and Keith David’s immortal slugfest in “They Live.” There, Piper’s character was trying to get David’s character to put on a pair of sunglasses, shades that would, in this movie’s sci-fi storyline, allow him to see the reality of the world all around him. In that way, it’s interesting to note that neither Lowe or McCarthy are wearing sunglasses at the end “Class.” For all that’s happened, these two idiots can’t see a damn thing.