Thursday, October 1, 2009

Drive Me Crazy 10th Anniversary

On Friday, October 1, 1999, I walked in to Mann's Plymouth Theater, screen 4, at 5:15 pm and watched, on its opening day, Drive Me Crazy. My life hasn't been the same since. Oh, I don't mean earth-shattering epiphany-wise, I mean I've since spent a lot of time with the movie, the soundtrack, the writer and the cast. It's been a lot of fun.

At its core, Drive Me Crazy is a prom movie, or in this case, the big dance. We've all seen variations on the genre - teenagers go through all kinds of hoops and end up at a dance. Other prom movies have been flashier, smoother, or with bigger stars but few have balanced a good story with a good time as well as this.

In a nutshell, Drive Me Crazy is about next-door neighbors Nicole and Chase. They were best friends until middle school and now loathe each other. She's a social climber; he's an outsider with a social conscience. Nicole wants to go to the dance with the captain of the basketball team but he asks a cheerleader from another school. The dance doesn't even register with Chase, but then he is dumped by his uber-cool girlfriend. Nicole needs someone to take her to the dance; Chase needs to make the ex jealous. A plot is hatched and stuff happens - little of it as intended. At Timothy Zonin High School, nicknamed Time Zone, the dance is also the main event at the 100th anniversary of the school, so the gala is known as Centennial.

Going in to the movie for the first time, I knew only a few things. The movie's star, Melissa Joan Hart, was on a roll, having just begun the fourth season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I knew the movie began life called Next to You, an adaptation of a novel called Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date. I knew the producers changed the title to Drive Me Crazy at the last minute to take advantage of the popularity of a Britney Spears song. I knew the move was filmed in October and November 1998 in Utah, and Hart was a weekend star, having to film Sabrina Monday-Friday at the same time. And I knew the movie was being promoted as a racy high school hijinx movie, which instinct told me was a bit of an oversell.

Sitting there in 1999, in a darkened theater with a few hundred strangers, I was amazed at how good Drive Me Crazy was. Low budget but not cheesy, it dived right in to the story, in the first scenes showing Nicole as a controlling dance committee chair and Chase as an unrepentant prankster. The cast was spot-on, the music perfect (including the Britney Spears song) and the story, while following the genre formula, was balanced between familiar and unexpected. I saw it a total of five times before it left theaters and many, many times on home video, although I mainly pick and choose favorite scenes these days. With DVD's ability to jump around movies, the pick & choose method seems to be how I watch most old faves now.

Here are a few things about Drive Me Crazy that I find exceptional, in no particular order.

The characters were never caricatures. Every kid is smart and aware. None are buffoons and neither are the adults. I like a movie where everyone could be a real person. In too many movies, there are characters that are too stupid to be real so it seems like you're watching a performance rather than discretely watching someone's life. Good movies generally don't let on that they are movies.

The dialog was wonderful and written by Rob Thomas. I didn't realize it at the time, but he created the 1998 ABC series Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall. Love or hate Piven, Cupid was wonderfully smart and witty. Some of that rubbed off on Drive Me Crazy. Thomas would later go on to create a little show called Veronica Mars, a program that had smart and funny dialogue, along with great drama and visuals. As one example of the great writing in Drive Me Crazy, Nicole takes Chase to the Gap for a wardrobe upgrade. As uncomfortable as Chase is then, it gets worse later when he tries to say something sincere to his ex, Dulcie, and she cuts him down by saying "I didn't expect you to fall into the Gap." At that moment, nothing could have hurt him worse. Or when Nicole is explaining the rules of high school society. She says "There are rules, you know." "Seniors RULE!" shouts Ray, Chase's stoner bud, which seems awfully stupid until they realize he was only acting stupid, and was therefore very smart. Or when Nicole sums up her cool relationship with her father by calling him, "Mr. Maris" rather than "Dad." Rarely do two words change the mood so quickly.

Early on, we discover that this isn't a movie about spurned teenage love, at least not for Nicole. When Alicia, the vixen, tells Nicole that the captain of the basketball team is taking someone else to Centennial because "He loves her," Alicia rolls her eyes and Nicole replies, "Love? Like I care." Later, Nicole explains the rules to the cager ("Seniors RULE!) and she says, "High school love is for saps, Brad." This is how adults speak and not what you'd expect in a high school movie. Of course, there is a love story angle, but I much prefer how it develops organically in Drive Me Crazy, rather than being its raison d'ĂȘtre.

There were 31 songs used in Drive Me Crazy but no orchestration. Many of the songs were used like you might use an orchestral score, providing emotional cues and transitions between scenes. Interestingly, and probably related to the diminutive budget, several of the songs were by Australian artists and certainly not familiar to an American audience. I've since tracked down all but a few of the songs and keep them in high rotation on my MP3 player. Some of the artists worth noting were Sugar High, Super Grass, Alda, Diesel Boy, Less Than Jake, Montana, and Steps. Plumb's "Stranded" has the distinction of being her only song that doesn't suck. Deadstar's "Run Baby, Run" and Charlotte Grace's "Picture of You" could have and should have been big hits stateside, but who's ever heard of them outside of Australia?

The Donnas appeared both on the soundtrack and on the screen. The Donnas started their career as The Electrocutes but changed their name to The Donnas somewhere around October 1, 1999. In Drive Me Crazy, the change was so fresh, they played The Electrocutes on-screen but were billed as The Donnas. They performed a music video to "Get Rid of that Girl," played on stage in the teen club scene, then were the featured band at Centennial. Very rockin', very fun. I've collected a lot of The Donnas music over the years. Their music is actually a lot better today, but they rocked a little harder ten years ago. Heck, I rocked a little harder ten years ago, too, so it's all good.

While I've been writing this, I've had iTunes randomly playing music in the background. Sure enough, one of the lesser-known songs from Drive Me Crazy popped up. Like I said, I spend a lot of time with this movie, one way or another. On the wall behind me there is a framed poster for the movie. Can't get away.

The cast was pretty good for a low budget flick. In addition to Hart, here's a rundown:
Adrian Grenier- You know him better as Vincent Chase on Entourage. Interesting that his character was "Chase" in both of these shows.
Ali Larter- Five months later, Ali would appear in her big break, Final Destination. Seven years later, she would become a regular on Heroes, an even bigger break.
Jordan Bridges - You may not recognize the name but if you watch TV, you'll probably recognize his face, as he's worked steadily since Drive Me Crazy, including an episode in season one of Dollhouse.
Lourdes Benedicto - Like Bridges, you may not recognize the name but you've seen her in something, maybe ER or 24.
Keri Lynn Pratt - Also a steadily working actress, Keri Lynn is now typecast as a sorority girl due to her porcelain complexion and squeaky-high voice despite being in her 30s. A recurring role on CSI probably didn't hurt her career, nor an appearance on Sabrina.
Susan May Pratt - After playing bad girl Alicia to a fair-thee-well in Drive Me Crazy, Susan had only one role of note for me since - a competitive also-ran in Center Stage, a somewhat-guilty pleasure.
Mark Webber- His resume over the past ten years is packed with indy pictures, few of which I've seen. Webber does, however, have the distinction of being in the worst movie ever made. On Febuary 10, 2000, I saw the Julia Stiles - Freddie Prinze Jr dog Down to You, which immediately jumped to the head of my informal list as worst movie ever. Twenty four hours later, I saw Webber's Snow Day, which unceremoniously unseated Down to You for the dubious honor. This is all pre-Lord of the Rings, so it's best that I don't maintain a worst movie list these days, formally or not.
Kristy Wu - Wu secured her place in TV history as one of the potential slayers in the final season of Buffy.
Natasha Pearce - Not really a busy actress, she appeared as a pixie in the brief American Xuxaseries in 1993. Don't ask me how I know that.
Mark Metcalf- You know him better as Niedermeyer in Animal House. Here he's the principal and only in a couple of scenes but steals them both. You want to hate him but he makes a funny expression at the big dance scene, which moves him into the "Cool" column.
Real life couple Stephen Collins and Faye Grant played Nicole's divorced parents. You know him from 7th Heaven (I guess - I've never even watched an episode) and she will live in TV history forever as Juliet Parrish in V.

Drive Me Crazy had a few great visuals, more than I would expect in a low budget flick. I especially like the one where Chase realizes he's lost Dulcie. He leaves a rambling message on her voice mail, then lays down on his bed and stares at the wall. The moonlight changes to sunlight and we realize he hasn't moved - not even blinked - all night long. Beautiful. Or near the end when he realizes he is caught between Dulcie's world and Nicole's and can't survive in either anymore. He wordlessly tells Dulcie he's dumping her and she grudgingly accepts the blindside. Grenier and Larter's expressions are transcendent. I like a movie with creative visuals.

Like it or not, drug use is a reality in high school. Many a movie will ignore it or treat drugs in a responsible adult way as not to offend anyone. Drive Me Crazy takes a different path. It admits that drugs exist, good kids sometimes take them, and makes a joke about it. When Chase and his buddies get called into the principal's office for a disciplinary action, the principal asks Ray to stand up so he can examine Ray's pupils. "I forget," Principal Niedermeyer asks, "Are they supposed to be bigger or smaller?" Ray answers with a deadpan, "It depends." Now, what movie about teens will admit that a character is a recreational drug user like that? I have a 17-year-old nephew so I don't endorse recreational consumption and neither does Drive Me Crazy, but we can't deny the existence of the drugs or the users, so ignoring it isn't the way to go - in the real world or in the movies - and I like the way this movie handles it.

You've got to like a movie that makes a gag out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nicole's father gives her a copy of the book and says it will help her understand him better. She's more than skeptical, and with good reason. I've read the book and if he thinks his 17-year-old daughter will learn anything about him by reading a 500 page story about a cycle riding schizophrenic, he's even more out of touch than he realized. Which might be Rob Thomas' point. And who voluntarily names his alter ego Phaedrus, anyway?

So, that's my 10th anniversary tribute to Drive Me Crazy, a little movie that I liked a lot. It's not for everybody, but I hope you have a movie you enjoy as much. I'll be watching it Thursday afternoon beginning at 5:15, exactly 10 years after the first time, since that's how I roll.

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