Johnny Be Good (1988)

Directed by Bud Smith
Written by Steve Zacharias & Jeff Buhai & David Obst

Oftentimes there are extenuating circumstances which just prevent something from happening. It can’t be stopped. You can try, you can get help, but it’s just going to happen for one reason or another. Take Johnny Be Good for instance. You can make a football movie in 1988, a fairly rich time for the genre, and get teen stars Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr. and Uma Thurman to star, and low and behold, your movie can still be a big steaming pile of horrible. It just goes to show that so many factors go into making a movie, and making a good one, that it’s hard to credit one or two people for the success of a film, or for its downfall. Make no mistake, Hall, Downey and Thurman are at fault here too, though perhaps not most at fault. That distinction likely goes to director Bud Smith and the screenwriting team.

Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) is an all-star quarterback, ready to graduate from high school after leading his team to the state championship, and go play ball at a big time college football team. His coach (Paul Gleason) takes more credit than he deserves for Johnny, hoping to steer him to Piermont for his own gain, his girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) wants him to go to State with her, like they had talked about, while Johnny’s friend and incompetent backup quarterback Leo (Robert Downey, Jr.) is just along for the ride to reap the benefits of what it means to be recruited by the biggest schools in the country. Johnny seems to be getting in well over his head as he’s courted by the biggest schools in the country, but will he come back down to earth and find the right place for him?

The premise is interesting enough. I enjoy the recruiting aspect of college football and follow Ohio State’s (I’m from Columbus) classes each year with great interest. It’s always fascinating to me to see how a program evaluates talent. In this day and age, rankings mean a lot, and talent means a lot, but the great programs also recruit to culture, personality. It makes a big difference. So what is Johnny Walker’s personality? It’s really hard to tell because his character feels underdeveloped, and his character feels a little out of Anthony Michael Hall’s element. Playing against type can be great for a career, and can result in a surprisingly effective performance, but that is not Johnny Walker. Hall, who is typically the nerdy outsider type, is now the QB, jock, stud type who is too cool for school and gets courted by the biggest programs in college football. It doesn’t feel right.

That’s likely the least of this films transgressions, however. Stupidity is easily its greatest. The tone of the film is silly and over the top, from start to finish. Which is fine if you can be as funny and effective as National Lampoon, but this is not funny. This is awkward. There’s a seedy culture of the jock getting everything he wants, of the girlfriend following behind and doing what she’s supposed to. It’s bad. And the acting, woof. This must have been during Downey Jr.’s drug era because what the hell is he even doing here? He doesn’t seem like a real living human being. He’s a caricature, and a painfully unfunny one at that. Thurman is fine, playing it mostly straight in the face of the silly around her, but her character suffers from some rather horrid writing, like the rest of the movie.

It just kept getting worse too. I kept thinking to myself this can’t be real. They can’t have made this bad of a movie. But, they did, unfortunately. It’s a cartoon, in the worst possible way. This style of film may have been en vogue back then (thanks National Lampoon for mostly doing it right), but the imposter’s version is just cringeworthy. When you make a movie like this that misses with every joke, and at every turn, the end result is just a painful watch. Painful. Never again. Avoid this movie like the plague. I had heard it wasn’t good, but my curiosity, my faith in the likes of Hall, Downey Jr. and Thurman was too great. Please, I plead with you, do not make the same mistake I did. Don’t see it.

★ – Hated It

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