Way back in the early days of the Internet, there was a little thing that went viral called “80s Movie Ending ”. It was riddled with clichés: mismatched group of losers saving some house, an impassioned speech, some rich fuddy-duddy gets beaten and humiliated, love is found (and every pairing that can be paired is paired), some slacker proves his worth.
Playing For Keeps is the quintessence of what this short was parodying. It is the avatar of what the platonic ideal of "generic 80s movie" is. If you didn’t know better, you might think that "80s Ending" was the end of this movie. If you’ve heard of it at all. It doesn’t exactly have notoriety. But it does have a little.
It’s first claim to fame: this is the Weinstein Brothers one foray into directing. No one who has seen this is shocked they didn’t stick with it.
Its other claim is it’s Oscar winner Marisa Tomei’s earliest role. Really. The opening credits even say, “Introducing Marisa Tomei”. Her part isn’t minor, but it’s not especially significant. I think she’s the girlfriend of the Jock Guy. But it's clear they knew even then that if only one aspect of the movie was going anywhere, it was going to be her. Sometimes you just know when you're around someone who is going to be huge. So you better believe when the movie got a VHS re-release in the 90s, it was with a cover that featured Marisa prominently.
Of course, it should be noted that when I saw the first trailer for My Cousin Vinny, my thought was, “Hey, it’s that girl from Playing for Keeps!”
Anyhow, here's the plot, which is about three young guys. We mainly focus on a Dreamer Guy, fresh out of high school (where he was class president, but yet gave a graduation speech of “screw school, man!”) and yet with no prospects on the horizon. With his friends Jock Guy and Music Guy (yes, these characters have names, but do they really matter? No, no they don't.), they seem to have a whole lot of nothing to do. Oh, except playing some sort of strange urban game that’s half hide-and-seek and half kidnapping-your-frenemies. I really cannot describe it any other way: it’s like capture the flag, except the other team are the flags. They’re in downtown Brooklyn and grabbing each other and stuffing each other in dumpsters and car trunks. I can’t imagine this happening without cops getting involved. Anyway, the point is: losers. But they’re literally 18 years old with nothing better to do. Fortunately, destiny steps in and Dreamer Guy discovers he inherited a hotel from a distant aunt somewhere in Pennsylvania. Seriously, he just opens a box in the kitchen drawer, where the deed is just sitting there. This movie doesn't even bother having it come in the mail. It's just SITTING THERE.
So he’s all, “I guess I own a hotel now, let’s go” and loads up Jock Guy and Music Guy into a van and they drive out. Of course, it’s a disaster: the place is falling apart, thousands in back taxes are owed, and the townsfolk are horrible people. Really, townfolk believe that they, themselves, are good decent people who don’t want city kids messing up their town, but no. They are just legitimately terrible human beings. Three guys beat up Music Guy and Jock Guy in the diner just for walking in, because they're “city trash”. The grocery store literally won’t sell them food. Why? Because they are city kids. They get thrown into jail for jaywalking. They’re a “bad element”.
Because nothing says “bad element” like kids fixing a broken down old hotel so they can run it. The nerve of these kids.
Plus—and I can’t believe I’m not making this up—there’s an evil industrialist who wants the land so he can make it into a toxic waste dump, and there's also a town council guy WHO WANTS THIS TO HAPPEN. Can you get anymore mustache-twirling evil?
Dreamer, Jock and Music Guy have a dream, though: a rock-and-roll party hotel for teens. Now, I’m not one to mock people for their dreams, but it strikes me as poor planning to deliberately target a demographic that doesn’t have a whole lot of expendable income to go way out to the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania just for a "rock-and-roll" party. But this was before Burning Man was a thing, so maybe they were on to something.
Tthe movie gets somewhat coming-of-agey, in that Dreamer Guy grows up a little, in that he learns how to work with the bureaucratic roadblocks the town puts in his path. So he’s got to figure out how to open a bank account, pay a tax bill, and convince friends to give cheap labor. He’s got a month to get the building up to code, and the hardest task involves getting leech field dug for the septic system.
So with more music montages than you can shake a stick at, these kids clean up their act. And the hotel. And they break into half the places in town to cause general chaos, but that's just as a diversion to get a backhoe across town and over a dangerous bridge so they can dig that leech field.
Seriously, that’s the whole back half of the movie: the town fucks with them, and they fuck with the town.
Including, and I’m NOT MAKING THIS UP, kidnapping the town elders. But that’s so they can be listening in secret when the Evil Town Elder reveals his part in the “sell out to toxic waste” plan. He monolgues about his part in the evil plan in a darkened room with a bunch of closed curtains, and then Dreamer Kid pulls down the curtain to reveal he’s caught.
THE HOTEL IS SAVED, Y’ALL.
And then there’s a big party.
The 80iest ending big hotel party EVER. Every one of the main characters and their minor characters gets their “thing”. There’s aerobics. There’s pastel décor. There’s a video arcade. There’s feel-good synth music. And there is an inexplicable crowd of teenagers who drove out to some hotel in the middle of nowhere for a party.
Maybe those townspeople had a point.