Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 25: Playing for Keeps (1986)

Day 25: Hey, Baby, Can You Dance to It? This one has to have at least one substantial dancing scene in it.

We spoke of this feature film writing and directing debut from the Weinstein brothers Harvey and Bob for their Miramax Pictures imprint in passing during our review for the somewhat similarly-premised Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel and during Videoscope‘s Robert Freese’s overview “Exploring: ’80s Comedies” featurette for B&S About Movies. And now, courtesy of the gang at Scarecrow Video coming up with their 25th theme day—and the fact that, Marisa Tomei, in her feature film-starring debut (she gets an “Introducing . . . As” title card in the opening credits), soft shoes a roof-topped dance number with a paint brush in-hand during a renovation scene—we’re finally giving it a review proper. (Thanks, Scarecrow dudes, for thou doeth suck. Just kidding. No, not really.)

So, before we get into the film itself, let’s unpack the film’s history and get the bad film Intel out of the way because this is one of those cases where the backstory (Playback, Spring Break ’83, Zyzzyx Road, Rocktober Blood 2: Billy’s Back) is much more interesting than the actual film.

First: Yes, Jimmy Baio—best remembered as the smart-mouthed Carmen Ronzonni in 1977’s The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and Billy Tate in ABC-TV’s Soapis the cousin of Scott Baio (TV’s Happy Days, Charles in Charge). Matthew Penn, however, is not related to Sean Penn. And Matt’s dad is Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man director Arthur Penn. And Sean’s dad isn’t Arthur Penn; his dad is acclaimed network TV series director Leo Penn. Chris Penn, the actor, and Michael Penn, the singer, aren’t Matt’s brothers, their Sean’s.

Second: While Matthew made his feature film acting debut in the never-released Rock ‘N’ Roll Hotel (1983) alongside a pre-Breakfast Club Judd Nelson, none of the footage from that film was recut as, nor repurposed as stock footage for, Playing for Keeps.

Are you enjoying your stay at the Majestic? Not!

Third: Playing for Keeps was finished and in the can in 1984 (and also known as Rock Hotel Majestic in some quarters) and sat on the shelf for two years before its theatrical release. And while Matthew Penn awaited its release, his second feature film was a support role in the Kristie McNichol-starring Dream Lover. And, yes. The name “Matthew Penn” you’ve seen listed as an executive producer on Law & Order: TOS and USA Network’s Queen of the South is the same Matthew Penn.

Fourth: Playing for Keeps was all but forgot, and found a new audience, in late-2017 when the New York Times mentioned the movie as the scene for one of Harvey Weinstein’s earliest, alleged sexual harassment episodes; this according to 20-year-old aspiring actress and college-attending waitress Tomi-Ann Roberts (who subsequently didn’t appear in the film).

Fifth: Much like with Alan Arkush basing his lesser-known Rock ‘n’ Roll High School follow up, Get Crazy (1983), on his experiences working at New York’s The Fillmore East, Playing for Keeps was inspired by Harvey and his brother Bob’s experiences of owning the Century Theater in Buffalo, New York, and operating it as a rock ‘n’ roll club from 1974 to 1978.

Sixth: The film began production back in 1983 at the shuttered Bethany Colony Hotel in the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Honesdale—and while the old girl was in still pretty decent shape, the production trashed the joint and left it in worse condition than they found it. Nice going, Harvey.

Seventh: Playing for Keeps wasn’t the debut release for Miramax Pictures; it was the writing and directing debut for bosses Harvey and Bob. The film served as the only director credit for Bob; Harvey would direct one more feature: 1987’s animated The Gnomes’ Great Adventure. The brotherly duo’s first-distributed film was a chronicle of Paul McCartney’s 1976 Wings Over America Tour—1980’s Rockshow. Their first produced film (distributed by Filmways) was the 1981 slasher The Burning, which served as Bob and Harvey’s only other writing credit. And Miramax only produced; Universal distributed Playing for Keeps.

Eighth: MTV aired a 22-minute making-of documentary, Playing for Keeps: The Team Behind a Dream, as part of the film’s promotional efforts. It didn’t work: the film tanked, making just over two and a half million in box office.

Courtesy of Billboard Magazine; October 11, 1986/Google Books.

Playing for Keeps—like most of those ’80s snobs vs slobs, aka lovable losers, aka men behaving badly comedy knockoffs (as pointed out by Robert Freese) in the backwash of Animal House, Meatballs, and Caddyshack, i.e., Joysticks, My Chauffeur, and Hamburger: The Motion Picture—is a film of a time and place. The appreciation of a film—whether it is good or bad, well-made or poorly made—is based in the age of the viewer; if you were in middle school or just starting high school at the time of its release, re-watching the Weinstein’s film will warm your analog cockles as a “classic” film.

Me: I was already ensconced in adulthood, wearing shirts with collars, even ties, when Playing for Keeps was released. Those ’80s Harold Faltermeyer-gated synth drums and Herbie Hancock keyboard-noodles of the film’s score were the bane of my punk-new wave-metal upbringing—and the Atlantic Records-produced soundtrack (Discogs) was loaded with more than I could bear. At least the later, somewhat similar The Runnin’ Kind had a pseudo-punk snarl to it. Here, we get the annoying Duran Duran splinter group, Arcadia (What?! No Spandau Ballet?), appearing alongside side freakin’ non-Genesis Phil Collins to nullify any coolness Pete Townshend brings to the proceedings (and it’s not even a “cool” Townshend tune). And, wow. What producer showed Peter Frampton the way to a career resurgence was to go with the Def Leppard-sellout drum cacophony?

It’s amazing that Marisa Tomei course-corrected out of this into a 20-plus episode stint on NBC-TV’s Cosby spinoff A Different World—and discovered Oscar gold with My Cousin Vinny six years later. Then again, it’s not amazing, because, even in her minor role (regardless of the later VHS and grey-market DVD repacks pushing her to the forefront) with her sub-par acting, she’s the best actor in the movie. No, I take that back. Her, and the 200-plus credited (and Shakesperean-trained) Harold Gould, are the best actors in the movie. The rest are just as awful as they wanna-be (as you’d expect they’d be) in an ’80s snobs vs slobs, aka lovable losers, aka men behaving badly ripoff-programmer.

So the “snobs” in this one are a corrupt chemical company executive and town politician with their eyes on the dilapidated Majestic Hotel property in upstate New York. And everything is going according to their sinister plan . . . until Danny (seriously annoying and totally unlikable; you just want to give him an ol’ Corky Ramono-Chris Kattan nut punch), a ne’er-do-well dreamer n’ schemer high school graduate (this really needed a Michael J. Fox or Tom Cruise to pull it off) discovers his down and out divorced mom inherited the deed to the hotel from a dead aunt. (Comedy: you gotta love it.)

So, with his two lazy-Meatballs buddies—the trio runs around New York with their other Porky’s-friends playing some goofy inner city street game called “Christopher Columbus” (there was no water around to play “Marco Polo”)—they ditch their manual labor employment agency jobs to turn the Majestic into a rock ‘n’ club and hotel. But they need to pay off the $8,000 tax bill. But how? They dress up as boy-scouts and sell cookies to earn the doe. Seriously, that’s the level of comedy here . . . and common sense. Why not work your asses off at the employment agency jobs . . . oh, because that’s not “funny.”

You tell ’em, Rocko. And get me a coke.

Now, I know this is sexist (Sorry, Harvey. Send your complaint to Sam; he’ll stick ’em in my employee file with the rest of ’em; I’ll see you at the annual review, Sam), but the gag could have worked . . . if we were dealing with three just out-of-high school women, say Marisa Tomei, with, say . . . Deborah Foreman and Elizabeth Daily. The whole scene of these three Stripes-dopes hocking thin mints in little Boy Scouts pseudo-military uniforms is utterly painful to watch. (Are you sure James Gunn didn’t make this? Nope. The Weinsteins did. Oops, Sorry, bad joke, Mr. Gunn. The awfulness of Playing for Keeps is inspiring me, I tell ‘ya!)

Okay, so we have dead aunts, overgrown pedo-boy scouts, and “Christopher Columbus” parkour dance numbers ripped from West Side Story, you got that? You keepin’ up?

Okay. Of course, when Shaggy and the Mystery Machine gang get there . . . the hotel is a rotted, rat-infested dump (that reminds of the Delta House, natch) that’ll fall over in a stiff wind. But Freddy, Thelma, and Daphne meet The Majestic’s kindly, ‘ol resident squatter (again, the-deserves-better-than-this Harold Gould) who inspires the misguided high school grads with good advice and nuggets of wisdom. And there’s sexual fantasy daydreams with Toni “Hey, Mickey” Basil doing her choreography thing (or was that Paula Abdul?). And Marisa Tomei doing a “Phoebe Cates” from Fast Times of Ridgemont High sexual fantasy daydream-ripoff holding a plate of cookies and candies. (“Oh, Brad, Spikes, you know, I always thought you were cute. are you hungry?”) And there’s “home improvement” dance numbers to Sister Sledge songs. And dancing—as per the Day 25 Scarecrow requirement—just breaks out without any particular rhyme or reason. And we wish Ferris Bueller had another day off and showed up with a hammer. And Bill Murray with a weed wacker and a brick of C4. Or Kevin Bacon took a day off and did a dance number with a broom. Or Michael Beck took a break from Xanadu. And that Tomei, Foreman, and Daily were selling the cookies to finance the paying off of the tax bill: Seriously, Weinstein bros. You already made a bad “cookie and candy” joke with Marisa, so why not put her in a sexed-up Girls Scouts uniform? Oh . . . because she wasn’t really hocking “sex cookies,” it was a “day dream.” Oh, okay. Screenwriting semantics. Got ‘ya, Harvey.

“You need to show ass to sell this movie! Is no ass here!”

Tommy Wiseau? What in the hell are you doing here? Didn’t I already make enough comparative critiques of your oeuvre in last October’s “Slasher Month” and “Scarecrow Challenge” reviews for Spine and Ice Cream Man, and last November’s Mill Creek Pure Terror*˟ box set tribute for Joy “J.N” Houck’s Night of Bloody Horror?

“Is plot twist. Oh, hi doggie.”

Anywhoo . . . in the end: Playing for Keeps took Miramax to the next level as they became America’s leading distribution purveyor of foreign and indie films. Then they met some kid named Quentin Tarantino* and distributed Reservoir Dogs. And some kid named Kevin Smith and distributed Clerks**. And you know the rest of the yada, yada, yada on Miramax. (Sorry, Sam. And I was doing so darn well with your Seinfeld References Ban.)

Anywhoo . . . you can stream the nostalgia for free on You Tube because, due to the usual licensing snafus regarding soundtracks with these old films, Playing for Keeps has never been officially transferred to DVD, so there’s no digital streams available in the regulated PPV and VOD marketplace.

* Be sure to join us in our review of the films distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Miramax-backed Rolling Thunder Pictures imprint with our “Exploring: The 8 Films of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures” featurette.

** Be sure to check out our “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s” featurette that takes a look at Clerks and many others.

*˟ As we do every November, we’re blowin’ out another Mill Creek’er all of next month with their Sci-Fi Invasion 50-film box set.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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