I had seen this movie when it came out-and loved it-and definitely wanted to watch it again so I could add it to this site. It turned out to be every bit as delightful as the first time.
John Hurt plays Giles De'Ath [his last name is one of the only heavy-handed things about the movie], a British intellectual writer with almost no connection to the modern world: he has no TV, never goes to the movies, and has no answering machine. He does nothing but read and write. One day he gets locked out in the rain, and, seeing that there's an adaptation of an E.M. Forster short story playing, buys a ticket. However, his utter ignorance in the ways of modern theaters results in his buying a ticket to the wrong movie, and he ends up watching a Porky's-like teen comedy entitled Hotpants College II. This actually happened to a friend of mine, someone also somewhat out of touch with the modern world, who finally gave in to his friends who had told him what a wonderful film Tender Mercies was. He could not understand what they saw in it, and only later discovered that he had accidentally walked into Porky's Revenge.
Anyway, Giles is about to leave, when he is transfixed by the appearance onscreen of Jason Priestly as actor Ronnie Bostock. He sits back down and watches the rest, and later goes back to see it again [in the classic situation of having to endure the shame of having to ask out loud for tickets to Hotpants College II]. The movie is presented as a film-within-the-film that hilariously parodies those kind of teen films, including, at one point, Bostock laying defeated on a diner counter, covered in ketchup and mustard. Giles later connects this image to Henry Wallis' painting Chatterton, hanging in the Tate, a Pre-Raphaelite painting that has been interpreted as expressing both the beauty of a young man in death and the struggle of the sensitive soul to endure against the modern world.
Giles becomes obsessed with Bostock, which is shown in a sequence of HILARIOUS scenes as he buys teen drivel magazines [picking up "Classic Cars" to deflect attention from the magazine he really wants: "Sugar"], buys a VCR in order to watch Bostock videos [only he doesn't understand that he will also need a television], and attempting to watch Ronnie's crappy sitcom at a friend's house. He pastes his teen-mag pics and captions of Ronnie into a scrapbook he labels "Bostockiana." There is a hilarious shot as Giles moves his face toward the television screen where Bostock is lying beautiful and dead [like Chatterton], and Hurt's sudden repulsed reaction as the image suddenly switches to an older priest. I guess your sense of how funny all of this will depend on your immersion in academic life and exposure to intellectuals who are like this; I was laughing my ass off the entire time.
After his [devastatingly handsome] agent suggests that he take a vacation, Giles decides to travel to Long Island and search for Ronnie in the flesh. He settles into a crappy roadside motel and spends his days wandering the streets in hope of running into his idol. One of the highlights of the entire film for me is a throwaway moment in which Giles opens the door of his motel room to place his shoes outside to be polished, and his slow reaction as he sees the rural road and woods outside and realizes that perhaps this motel does not offer overnight shoe-shine service.
Eventually Giles meets Ronnie's girlfriend Audrey, and immediately targets her as a way to meet Ronnie. Giles, hopeless at modern society, proves to be an expert at manipulation of the weak-minded, and he plays to all of Audrey's [and later, Ronnie's] naïveté's and narcissisms. They come to believe that Giles is "a famous writer from England," and lap up everything he says about the depths of emotion he sees in Ronnie's acting. He eventually promises to write a screenplay for Ronnie that will break him out of the trap of teen movies, and propel him into more serious parts. It moves on to a climax that I wouldn't dare ruin for you, but, like the rest of the movie, is nimble and subtle-and moving-and which works on several levels at once.
John Hurt gives a truly incredible performance. He can of course handle the drama, but I was surprised at his incredible skill at the comedy, especially the simple comedy of reaction shots and double takes. He creates a fully believable character that is well-rounded and very real. Jason Priestley is good, but not especially revelatory. Fiona Loewi, as Audrey, does a great job of running with her character's naïveté, but there is just the slightest trace of self-awareness in her performance that keeps it from greatness.
There was also a lot of content in this movie about watching movies, which was familiar to me, especially since beginning this site, such as the feeling of being in love with an actor in a movie, and feeling as though one KNOWS an actor from seeing them in a movie, plus the content of the lecture Giles gives on watching movies on VCR, and how he says tiny moments from terrible movies can become quite interesting and meaningful when you are able to go back and watch them over and over again.
Another theme of this movie is how awful the modern world-and the people who inhabit it-are getting. The script goes out of its way to remind us that most people do not read books anymore, and find no reward in anything they have to pay more than a moment's attention to. The obnoxiousness of the video store clerk and the theater ticketseller are hilarious for how very true to life they are. The screenplay is very carefully written, and even the most minor characters, such as the VCR salesman who tells Giles it's "in his own interest to buy the latest technology," seem pulled straight from everyday life, and express the psychological barrenness of the majority of people who surround us today.
This movie is wonderfully funny and moving, featuring characters with real depth, and a careful subtext, and allusions to other works, such as the Wallis painting and Death in Venice. Just a great all-round movie that deserves to be seen.
Yes, you really should.