***/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring C. Thomas Howell, Lori Loughlin, Kelly Preston, Fred Ward
screenplay by Jim Kouf & David Greenwalt
directed by David Greenwalt
by Bill Chambers Blessed with one of the best non-Tangerine Dream synth scores of the 1980s, Secret Admirer arrives on DVD this month to remind such movies as Just Married and Kangaroo Jack just how a formulaic laff riot with a risqué slant is done. I confess I still adore this seminal film of my youth while conceding that its machinations seemed far more clever to me at the age of ten. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a teen-targeted comedy that aspired to any cleverness? Or that opened with a piece as alternately mysterious and wistful as Jan "Miami Vice" Hammer's lyrical main theme?
Said music sets a tone that Secret Admirer rarely sticks (or aspires) to, and yet because of it, we remember the picture as having sophistication. Which is not to say it has none: Dark-eyed beauty Lori Loughlin, before "Full House" ironed out the wrinkles in her wholesomeness, brought a touch of smouldering class to this tale of a high-school student named Michael (C. Thomas Howell, a likable hybrid of Michael Schoeffling and Jim Carrey), who, on the day before the start of summer vacation, receives an unsigned love letter in his locker. Unsure of the source, he hopes it was written by buxom prom queen Deborah (Kelly Preston, presaging her Jerry Maguire turn), and enlists his gal pal Toni (Loughlin) to deliver secret-admirer notes back to her.
The letter of origin, in the meantime, gets misplaced, causing a chain reaction of infidelity among the parents of Michael (Cliff DeYoung and Dee Wallace Stone) and Deborah (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young) both. Of course, it's one thing to leave a sweetheart's missive unsigned, but to forgo the salutation line? That's the kind of "Three's Company"-style convolution that keeps Secret Admirer south of genius, and the film begs not the question of the secret admirer's identity, but rather if the obvious identity of the disembodied votary was intended to be more difficult to deduce than it is, given that there are only two possibilities (barring a deus ex machina). Co-writers Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, for starters, make the mistake of top-loading the picture with male characters (two of whom are played by Back to the Future veterans (Casey Siemaszko and Jeffrey Jay Cohen) in strikingly similar roles). Perhaps I'm underestimating the self-awareness of the filmmakers, though: Secret Admirer's one-sheet from 1985 shows a brick about to fall on Michael's head.
Greenwalt--one of the major forces behind the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--also directed Secret Admirer, and it will come as little surprise to "Buffy" fans that, in addition to being keenly shot and edited (a homage to The Graduate is paid with genuine slyness), the film betrays a modicum of emotional intelligence within a far-fetched framework. Secret Admirer breaks no Reagan-era molds (the libido is used as a narrative shortcut--in fact, the picture's sole nod to originality might be that it avoids racist stereotypes entirely), but Michael's dimming affection for the materialistic Deborah, Deborah's trophy relationship with a college student, and the intimations that Deborah's materialism masks deep insecurities have a truth to them that could have been approached in a cheaper, crasser fashion, all. I can almost guarantee you that Secret Admirer is better than whatever ten-year-olds are sneaking a look at these days.
MGM releases the Orion production on a flipper DVD featuring 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and unmatted fullscreen transfers. This is a clean, bright presentation given over to the brown look of '80s cinema but unspoiled by print aberrations--except during the opening titles, which display a fair amount of dirt as a result of optical inserts. Grain is apparent though never abundant. Hammer's pretty music sounds nice in the included Dolby Surround track, if, like the rest of the audio, a little thin. Quiet, too, necessitating an initial boost in volume above reference-level. Trailers for MGM's Special Edition DVDs of When Harry Met Sally..., and The Princess Bride round out the disc. Originally published: January 15, 2003.