How Cell Phones Ruined Party Movies

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Mandate/Warner Bros/Columbia/Imagine

The trailer for Take Me Home Tonight—a comedy that follows Topher Grace on what will either be the best or worst night of his life, set in 1988—has provoked two reactions. In one camp, there are people who think that spending a couple of hours watching Grace fall in love and come of age during the Reagan years might be a pretty good time. In the other, there are those asking why we are still waxing nostalgic over the 1980s and why can't we just film a basic party film set in the present day.

Recognizing that the 1980s gave this country Mötley Crüe, scrunchies, and the rise of supply-side economics, I'm not really sure I can reply to Gawker's first question. However, the answer to the second question is easy: We can't have fun movies about how one awesome party suddenly changes everything for everybody set in the present day because everybody now has cell phones. Sorry.

The "One Crazy Night" movie genre—which includes films like Can't Hardly Wait, 200 Cigarettes, and Superbad—is predicated on communication failure. In these films, the many members of the ensemble cast find it hard to reconnect once separated, hear inaccurate stories, and share crucial information too late. They're comedies of errors where problems could easily be solved with a text message, and trust me, even William Shakespeare would struggle with this same problem writing his lighter (and even some of his darker) fare were he alive today.

Take American Graffiti. If that film had been set today instead of 1962, it wouldn't have made any sense at all—and not because kids don't hang out at sock hops and in diners anymore. Richard Dreyfuss would never have spent the night split between his ex-girlfriend and a local gang if he had been able to call all his friends, and he definitely wouldn't have asked Wolfman Jack to read his cell phone number over the radio airwaves in an attempt to connect with a hot blonde woman, allowing all of Modesto to prank call him. He would have never received a call from said love interest in a pay phone, because pay phones are impossible to find these days.

Sixteen Candles would not have been a charming love story about a mismatched couple but rather a harrowing tale of teen bullying. If texting had existed on Molly Ringwald's sweet sixteen, half the school would have images of her underwear and sex quiz on their cell phone faster than you can say "Long Duk Dong." But at least she probably would have had a surprise party: Thanks to Facebook, her parents likely would have been reminded of her birthday and planned emergency festivities. Hijinks never would have ensued.

Can't Hardly Wait, one of the last pre-cellular age One Crazy Night movies, wasn't terribly plausible when it came out in 1998, but it would have been utterly exasperating if it had been released a decade later. A teenage Asher Roth-type would not have lost his virginity, because there is no way he would have spent a whole night locked in a bathroom with the goth-ish misfit had either of them been able to call their friends to break them out. The nerdy valedictorian would have avoided being the subject of compromising Polaroids and going to jail if he had been able to text his minions and abort a revenge attempt on the popular jock (meanwhile, the screenwriters could have avoided a lame and sort of obvious gay joke, so there's that). Protagonist Ethan Embry would not have found himself at a gas station pay phone, having a revelatory conversation with an exotic dancer dressed as an angel. He also might have considered pouring out his heart to Jennifer Love Hewitt via e-mail instead of trying to hand-deliver a love letter to her at a crowded party.

The few One Crazy Night movies produced this decade tend to be far less straightforward than their predecessors. Much like horror movies use dead zones to explain why the pursued aren't calling the cops already, comedies and dramas of this ilk now mainly rely on people getting black-out drunk and going on quest to explain why they get in crazy situations where they can't communicate with each other. The Hangover only works because all of the characters have rohypnol-induced amnesia. In Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, cell phones are beside the point when the leads are that stoned. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist features only one truly wasted character—and the movie suffers because of it, since everyone else just seems incompetent.

Then there are the movies that try to make cell phones themselves a source of miscommunication. Superbad contains a requisite scene acknowledging that everyone carries cell phones now—but that using them could reduce your chances of having sex with your longtime crush should there be lousy reception—before getting back to fun stuff involving cops, liquor stores, and house parties. Dinner for Schmucks goes much further, almost to the point of trying too hard, by hinging a substantial amount of the wacky dramatic tension on a case of mixed up cell phones.

But out of all of these recent movies, Hot Tub Time Machine had the most inventive solution to the cellular problem: spill Russian Four Loko on a jacuzzi control panel and get out of this decade entirely. Because in all honesty, that's far less ridiculous than pretending that cell phones don't exist in the year 2010.

So, given the hoops you have to go through to tell a simple story about navigating that inter-adulthood period between middle school and marriage, I can see why just setting your movie in 1988 and calling it a day would work for the guys behind Take Me Home Tonight. Even if it means forcing your cast to dance to Eddie Money and wear blazers with rolled up sleeves. It's easier than the alternative.