After Manure quietly (and not-so-quietly) stunk up the scene at the Sundance Film Festival, the Polish Brothers (Mark and Michael) have returned to the festival circuit with Stay Cool -- a film that leaps into your lap with its perky, original concept, but then slowly but surely fails to deliver ... well, pretty much everything. What we have here is an on-the-verge-of-40 novelist (Mark Polish) who returns to his hometown only to find himself stuck in a really bad, cliched '80s movie -- complete with two bonehead best friends, mean teachers, a moronic high school principal and a hardcore crush on that girl whose meat-head boyfriend is named Brad. And I don't mean cliched '80s movie in a bad way -- that's kinda the point with Stay Cool; our lovable, somewhat-awkward novelist learns that he must overcome the fears and regrets he's had since graduating 20 years ago by living his worst moments all over again.
Some have said Stay Cool is like 17 Again in reverse, which it sorta is -- except there's no magical, supernatural element here. Our guy just somehow finds himself re-living those weird, painful high school moments (as an adult) until he finally comes to grips with his past and his present, and, of course, manages to stay cool. Sounds like a pretty cool movie, right? Don't get me wrong, Stay Cool definitely has its brief moments of laugh-out-loud nostalgia -- and how can it not when the Polish boys populate their cast with some of our favorite '80s movie stars, like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Chevy Chase, Jon Cryer and Michael Gross (who practically steals every scene he's in). The main problem with Stay Cool isn't with its idea or intentions; it's with its execution. But let me back up fast.
Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish) is a dick-lit novelist (his book, How Lionel Got Me Laid, is, well, about how Lionel Ritchie got him laid in high school) who's asked to return to his hometown high school 20 years later and give a commencement speech. When Henry arrives, it's almost as if nothing has changed: His two best friends, Big Girl (Sean Astin as the worst flamboyant gay man you'll ever see on screen) and Whino (Lost's Josh Holloway), are still yucking it up and acting as comic relief while our jaded writer slowly slips back into the life he left behind all those years ago. Forced to wear his old high school clothes because of lost luggage and stay with parents who still treat him like he's 18, Henry begins to hang out at the high school in the hopes inspiration for his commencement speech will come knockin'.
While home, Henry looks up his old crush, Scarlet (Ryder), who's on the outs with her high school flame, Brad (now coaching gym), and ... if you've watched more than one teen-related '80s high school comedy, you can imagine what happens next. My issues with Stay Cool begin and end with its main character, Henry McCarthy. Mark Polish is an absolute bore to watch on screen; it's as if his character almost expected to walk into an '80s movie when the film would've played ten times better if he questioned, well, anything. His two buddies never act as a team; there's barely any comedic chemistry there. And with a concept that naturally lends itself to organic humor, it seemed to me like the film forced the issue (and the comedy) way too often -- not to mention the fact that the characters felt too old for the script. Unfortunately, if you want your film set in 2008 there's nothing much you can do about that.
All that being said, the audience I watched the film with was laughing a whole lot at some of these jokes and situations -- perhaps because they fondly remember their awkward high school years, or the angsty teen films they went to see each weekend. Stay Cool definitely carries a nostalgic vibe (and soundtrack), and easily has enough commercial appeal to open wide in theaters -- but don't expect to get past second base with this prom date; she may look good, but there's not much substance beneath all that hairspray.