Director: James Bridges
Screenplay: James Bridges and Aaron Latham (based on Latham’s articles for Rolling Stone Magazine)
Here I am again, stuck in the ’80s, like some broken Jan Hammer record. Between posts on Thief of Hearts, A Night in Heaven, and now Perfect, reviewing sexed-up, widely reviled stuff from the Reagan-era Hollywood assembly line is fast becoming my schtick here at Wipe. I might as well make this a running feature of the blog: “Searching for Sex in Reagan Hollywood’s Junk Trunk.”
Maybe it’s my fault for continuously seeking out such films; I admit I’m fascinated by ’80s Hollywood as an era of vulgar ostentation, cheeseball culture, and recrudescent conservatism. There’s also something extra-horny about Hollywood in the ’80s (perhaps it was all the coke being passed around at Don Simpson parties). The perspiring hardbody seems to be the sex object par excellence during this time; sweat and athleticism (or muscles) are fetishized (see Flashdance for arguably the key female figure of this fetishization; or really any Stallone movie for the macho-violent male alternative). What struck me about James Bridges’ Perfect as I watched it recently was not only that it took as its main focus Hollywood’s obsession with sweaty, fit bodies (the obsession to be “perfect”), but that it actually, almost in spite of itself, yielded insights into this phenomenon. I also found the film noteworthy for being less asymmetrical in its sexual politics than is usual for films of its type, i.e. ’80s Hollywood entertainments where the plot pivots around the problem of facilitating coitus – the methods used, the ethics involved, the reasons behind. And yeah, I realize I’m casting a broad net here.
Perfect sets out to blow the lid off the L.A. sports gym culture of the early ’80s. Based on articles by real-life Rolling Stone writer Aaron Latham (who also wrote the script for Perfect), the film follows journo Adam Lawrence (John Travolta, playing the Latham part) as he braves the California gym scene to research a piece on how fitness centres are fast replacing single’s bars as the primo destination for eligible, lusty bachelors and bachelorettes on the West Coast.
At one of the gyms Travolta meets Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a popular aerobics instructor whom he immediately targets as the central figure in his piece, being most drawn to her sexually. She refuses to let him interview her, explaining she’s been burned before for trusting a journalist (more on that later). But Jessie has no qualms about going to bed with him, and in fact is the first to make a pass, doing so by typing “Wanna fuck?” on Adam’s word processor – a pre-cell phone example of “sexting,” to be sure.
Even as one appreciates the brazenness of Jessie’s sexuality (in contradistinction to the repressed female leads in A Night in Heaven and Thief of Hearts), one cannot help feeling a little bemused by Jessie’s conviction that she doesn’t need to trust Adam as a journalist to want to have sex with him. Integrity is not an immediate issue for Jessie and Adam’s sexual relationship; in the beginning, it’s just “physical, physical” (to quote one of Travolta’s erstwhile co-stars). A very funny sequence (that’s also supposed to be very sexy) has Adam and Jessie facing off in one of her aerobics classes, where she pushes an increasingly risqué set of groin exercises, as if to test Adam’s ability to match her, hump for hump, in sexual endurance. The inherent narcissism of Jessie’s routine – she becomes more attracted to Adam the more he imitates her, and we might say vice versa – is enhanced by the mirrored walls of the aerobics room. In essence, the whole act of the group workout becomes masturbation en masse, with each person concentrated on his/her reflection (Jessie and Adam act as each other’s reflection). The sequence imbricates a fetish for the hardbody with an obsession over self-image, in the process becoming a perfect microcosm of ’80s vanity, topped off with an utterly vacuous pop beat (“Shock Me” by Jermaine Jackson and Whitney Houston).
Yet – surprise, surprise – Perfect is not only out to peddle gyrating gym bodies and superficial sex. Eventually serious complications arise in Jessie’s ongoing distrust of Adam as a journalist, when she discovers that he has, after all, been crafting a totally exploitative piece on the fitness centre and its horny-but-good-hearted patrons (one of whom [Larraine Newman] carries a reputation as “the most used piece of equipment in the gym,” a nickname Adam shamelessly picks up on and builds his cynical article around). Jessie breaks off the affair with Adam, remembering all too well the hurt once caused by a journalist who betrayed her trust by writing an unscrupulous article about her relationship with her Olympic swim coach. In order to woo Jessie back, Adam must take a dramatic, unprecedented stand on behalf of ethical journalism. I suppose we’re to understand from this that being “perfect” is about more than having a wicked hot bod – it’s a matter of possessing honesty and integrity, too. Razzie-founder John Wilson, in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, cuts through this baloney quite aptly, arguing that Perfect‘s real message seems to be: “Standing by your journalistic principles is good for your sex life.” It’s a shallow premise, but at least the film has a more balanced notion of what a sex life is than sleaze like Thief of Hearts and A Night in Heaven.
If anything can be said to carry Perfect, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance as Jessie. It’s a legitimately sexy star turn. The actress whipped herself into terrific shape for the role; she makes the aerobics routines sizzle, as hilarious as they often are.
And the film’s soundtrack’s not all bad. I’m now hooked on Dan Hartman’s “Talking to the Wall” thanks to Perfect – and thanks also, in no small part, to the hot-blooded Jamie Lee cardio-choreography that accompanies the song in the film.