Retro comedies can be difficult to make. On one hand, leveraging the nostalgia factor to tell a funny story can yield an entertaining film. The problem is, too often, filmmakers rely solely on the nostalgia factor to make the film work. They include numerous references to older movies and pop-culture icons, but they don’t actually offer viewers anything more substantial. The experience of watching this type of movie is often less like revisiting a beloved old friend to reminisce about the past and more like spending time with a depressing old friend who can’t stop making references to their glory days.
Take Me Home Tonight, released in 2011, is an example of a retro comedy done right. Starring Topher Grace as an aimless MIT grad trying to win the love of his high school crush (played by Teresa Palmer), the movie manages to celebrate the classic teenage rom-coms of the 1980s while telling a genuinely engaging story all its own. Here’s how:
Balancing References and Storytelling
Again, a retro comedy should obviously reference the movies that inspired it. Take Me Home Tonight certainly does so. It’s set in 1988. Its very title recalls the popular music of the decade. Its main character works at Suncoast Video, a loving nod to filmgoers who remember the age when video stores were popular businesses. And, most importantly, its characters all resemble the types of characters who used to appear in ‘80s rom-coms.
That said, these movies must perform a balancing act. If all they consist of are references to older classics, then audiences will grow bored. After all, these older movies still exist. If a viewer wants to have the exact same experience they had watching the originals, they can just rewatch them. They don’t need a new movie in a classic genre if it doesn’t actually add anything new.
This is a key reason Take Me Home Tonight succeeds. In many ways, it’s inspired by the subgenre of ‘80s rom-com that typically featured a nerdy male protagonist fawning over his high school crush. However, there are subtle differences. For example, in Take Me Home Tonight, the characters aren’t in high school anymore. They’ve graduated college and are taking steps towards adulthood.
This shift away from the stereotype allows the film to resonate on a deeper emotional level with its audience. Although the movie certainly does pay homage to a once-popular genre of film, by choosing to focus on characters who are no longer high school students, it subtly acknowledges that retro comedies always involve some degree of looking back to the past. The main character still pines for his high school crush the way viewers of ‘80s retro comedies may still pine for the experiences they had when they were young and these films were new.
This difference is important. It allows the film to conform to the tropes of the genre on which it’s based, while also allowing the film to stand on its own. This is an extremely difficult balancing act to perform. Take Me Home Tonight does so naturally.
Casting the Right Actors
The actors who appear in retro comedies need to be familiar with the types of movies they’re referencing. Perhaps more importantly, they need to love them the same way the audience does, while also being mature enough to have a sense of humor about them. Adolescent rom-coms from the 1980s may have seemed fresh and funny when they were first released, but as with so many film genres, in retrospect, they can seem dated. The performers in retro comedies must appreciate this fact, without displaying a mean-spirited or overly sarcastic attitude about the outdated qualities of such movies.
While it’s not entirely possible to know exactly how the actors in Take Me Home Tonight feel about the ‘80s movies that clearly inspired their characters, if their performances are any indication, they have a fondness for them that matches the audience’s fondness. They inhabit their characters in ways that make it clear they understand love the genre they’re paying tribute to, but they also bring a certain degree of meta-humor to the roles without ever seeming to mock the genre.
Best of all, viewers are made to actually care about these characters. This may be the main reason Take Me Home Tonight succeeds. It’s a funny comedy that lovingly pays homage to the entertaining comedies of the 1980s, but it also tells its own story. The result is one of the best retro comedies in years.