Happy Fourth of July, America! And to MamaPop’s many Canadian readers: hey…it’s Wednesday. Neat.
I’ll confess, I’ve never been too wild about Independence Day. I always feel as if I’m supposed to be having a wilder time than I am. I mean, it’s not that I’m a total ingrate: I’m beyond grateful to live in a county where I’m free to snark. And the Fourth of July is a nice moment for Americans to reflect on what we have in common (loathing each other and liking hot dogs) rather than what divides us (loathing each other and liking hot dogs). A chance to think about all for which we have to be grateful — how much vision and how many lives it took to achieve it. Oh and the chance to blow shit up.
Here’s the thing, though: right now, many parts of the country are canceling fireworks displays due to wildfires, drought, and the aftermath of some very ugly weekend storms. And even in places where there will be fireworks, it is 90,000 degrees outside. All of this means that at some point you and your loved ones will be driven inside on this Independence Day, hopefully to your own air-conditioned home or the home of a kindly friend or relative. And after you play Battleship or have too much Miller High Life and drive an awkward wedge in the conversation by calling your cousin’s girlfriend by his dead girlfriend’s name, someone is going to switch on the TV or stream some Netflix or fire up the ol’ Hulu.
Yep, the Fourth of July means family movie time and, as lovely and moving as they are, do you really want to sit through Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The Patriot for the umpteenth time? Or even Independence Day? No. No, you do not. So I’ve compiled a less obviously Fourth-friendly—but endlessly entertaining—watchlist just for you.
The Secret of My Success (1987) Hostile take-overs? Accidentally sleeping with a relative? White guys from Kansas doing okay in life? Sounds pretty All-American to me. In this 1987 comedy of excesses, Michael J. Fox lives a double-life as mailroom clerk and wunderkind executive, stealing someone’s identity in the process. Remember when corporate wheeling and dealing hadn’t dismantled the economy?
This movie will take you back. Plus it has Helen Slater and this will segue quite nicely into the next flick on your playlist.
The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) America loves folk heroes and we love movies about them even more: see Bonnie and Clyde. Me, I like my folk heroes with a more inexplicable motive than scoring some cold hard cash or getting kicks. I was hooked when when Bille Jean (Helen Slater) and younger brother Binx (Christian Slater) hit the road with the voice of Lisa Simpson because some rich boys sexually harassed Billie Jean. Or because the rich boys stole Binx’s scooter. Or because their family is poor and society doesn’t care. Or because Binx accidentally shoots a rapist in the shoulder. I like my narratives muddled, far-fetched, and topped off by a nationwide manhunt for a teenager with a bad haircut who stole $600 and grazed some redneck with a bullet. Did I mention the bitchin’ line of merchandise celebrating said teenager?
Throw in a Pat Benatar soundtrack and awkward scene where Yeardley Smith gets her period? It’s the classic tale of an American hero.
Real Women Have Curves (2002) 18-year-old Ana grapples with her Mexican-American family’s desire for her to settle in East L.A. and pitch-in at the family business or follow her own dreams and accept a scholarship to Columbia. It’s a great little film but, let’s be frank, I include it because it was America Ferrera’s first film role. Get it? The birth of America? See also The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (in which America is born) and Ugly Betty (the birth of America’s TV career).
But speaking of moving tales of immigrant life in America…
In America (2002) In America is the story of an Irish couple, their two darling spunky little girls, and their battle to find a new life in Manhattan while still grieving the loss of a toddler son. They arrive in America, undocumented and unprepared, scraping by in a scary-ass tenement house. The movie is lovely and soul-crushing, all at once. After you see it, you will devote your life to the rigging of carnival games. See the movie. You’ll understand.
Gleaming the Cube (1989) One more nod to the complexity of the immigrant experience in America. When your adopted Vietnamese brother uncovers the massive weapons trafficking conspiracy going down at his girlfriend’s father’s medical supply company…well, naturally you and your skateboarding brethren are going to take down the Southeast Asian mafia. Like you do.
The Scarlet Letter (1979) Because as we celebrate our amazing heritage we should also remember that Americans can be really uptight assholes. See also Separate but Equal, The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Good Night and Good Luck.
Cape Fear (1962 / 1991) The classic revenge tale of rapist Max Cady stalking the family of the public defender who ultimately flipped to help land Cady in jail. There’s no better way to say “Happy Birthday, America!” than spend the whole night looking over your shoulder and checking on your dog. The original is superior but the 1991 version does have its advantages: namely Robert De Niro’s marble-mouthed hillbilly mating call (“Couuuuuuunselooooorrrrr! Come out, come out wherever you are”). Sure there are other ways to scream your way to a jolly Independence Day — Jaws, The Return of the Living Dead, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, all set over the Fourth of July weekend. But, for my money, Cape Fear wins every time.
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) The tale of a wannabe composer who takes a fall-back job as a high school music teacher to get his family over the hump. It is a bit cloying, yes, but Richard Dreyfuss signs John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” to his deaf son and it’s beautiful and tearjerking and LEAVE ME ALONE I LIKE IT. Why is this a movie to help you celebrate America? Because it honors that time-tested American tradition of underpaying and laying off our teachers. So there.
Ghostbusters (1984) By the time July 4, 1984 rolled around Ghostbusters had been in theaters for a month and was a bonafide summer hit. It is funny, goofy, over-the-top, and—while clever—not incredibly taxing on your grey matter. The perfect summer movie. However, I suggest that it is also the perfect celebration of America. Einstein. Edison. Boltzman (look him up, Quantum Leap fans). Frankel (as in Bethenny, the inventor of the Skinny Girl Margarita). America often dismisses innovators at first blush. And what happened to Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler? They were dismissed as con men, crackpots, and pseudo-scientists. Until the city of New York needed them to drive a Sumerian shape-changer back to worlds unknown. THEN they were genius heroes.
Is there anything more American than being ahead of your time? If you’re fancy (and a comedy Phillistine), you could pass over Ghostbusters for other tales of under-appreciated genius, like Greg Kinnear as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper whose idea was stolen by Detroit automakers in Flash of Genius (2008). If Ghostbusters is too high-brow for you, try Envy (2004) in which hard-working practical Ben Stiller seethes over his best friend (Jack Black) inventing the “Va-poo-rizer.”
American Graffiti (1973) The only George Lucas film that George Lucas seems content to not CGI Hayden Christensen into (“Look! He’s a car-hop!”), Graffiti is the funny, touching tale of a group of high school grads spending one last night trying to get laid, get themselves straight, and stave off the anxiety of going off to college or, even, off to war. In addition to being the seminal tale of that one long summer night you spent with the people you’d spend years trying to forget or hoping would forget you as you were, American Graffiti is a classic American tale. You’re getting everything you want—you think—but you’re sure there’s something better—maybe. It’s a big ball of American aspirational neuroses. Plus, you get to see a young, nearly non-speaking Harrison Ford and a 13-year-old Mackenzie Phillips, doing her thing before shit got real and she became that other American archetype: the comeback kid.
Now it’s your turn MamaPop patriots: which flicks make you stop and say, “God Bless, America?” And for our Canadian friends: so, um, what did you have for lunch today?