Arliss Howard also pwns! “Plain Clothes”

October 14, 2015


This is the latest in my “pwns!” series in which I extol the virtues of under-recognized or under-appreciated actors. Previous installments covered Stephen McHattie and Bob Hoskins.

And now for a different Seattle cop story…

I suppose I’ve been seeing Arliss Howard in stuff for decades, but I never really noticed him until his amazing turn as the ice-blooded former spook Kale Ingram in the late, lamented Rubicon. With his laid-back style and flatter-than-the-topography-of-Illinois Midwestern accent, Howard manages to simultaneously anchor and enliven any scene he’s in. So when I discovered he starred in a little-seen 1987 comedy about a detective that goes undercover in a suburban high school, well, I don’t know what deity I need to make a pagan offering to, but this goat’s sure not gonna sacrifice itself.

Plain Clothes begins at a suburban Seattle high school when a teacher stumbles into his classroom with a knife embedded in his back. The knife belonged to one of his students, so the cops like him for the murderer. The kid’s brother, Nick Dunbar, just so happens to be an undercover cop (currently languishing on ice cream truck robbery detail), unable to get a decent assignment due to his relative youth-–24—and baby face. When Nick decks the detective who arrested his brother, he winds up on suspension. With plenty of time on his hands, and his brother facing 25 to life, Nick decides to go undercover at the high school to flush out the real killer.

The major flaw in his plan is that Nick has no clue how to act like a high schooler (“Your problem is you’ve always been more like an adult than a kid,” his brother tells him), so he ends up enrolling under the name Nick Springsteen and showing up for his first day of classes clad in a leather jacket, dog collar and bandanna (Nick apparently confused “high school” with “the S&M gay clubs in Cruising”).

From one who was there, this is how every high school looked in 1987.

From one who was there, this is how every high school looked in 1987.

Well, this problem is cleared up when Nick comes to view the case as an opportunity to be the campus cool guy he never was. He dons Hawaiian shirts and a straw boater and rocks a pair of horn-rimmed Ray Bans like a boss (look, it was the ‘80s. Things were different. We were on the verge of nuclear war. Stop being judgey).

Threat of nuclear annihilation makes for interesting sartorial decisions.

Threat of nuclear annihilation makes for interesting sartorial decisions.

But Nick has other problems to contend with. The school hall monitors are a group of pompadoured fascists called The Wardens, and Kyle, the leader, wants to beat the hell out of Nick because…I dunno, I guess because Nick doesn’t rock a pompadour. On top of that the school’s blonde hottie goddess may hold a piece of the puzzle, and she’s waaay into Nick—prompting his partner to mention that “a number of state laws come to mind”—oh, and she’s Kyle’s ex.

“Sorry, I was just thinking of the age of consent laws  in Washington State.”

On top of that, Nick has the hots for his foxy, young English teacher Ms. Torrence (Suzy Amis), which makes them both very confused. Admittedly, Nick doesn’t exactly ameliorate the situation when for his class assignment he reads aloud an erotic e.e. cummings poem about banging a virgin.

The biggest problem, though, is the fact that Nick apparently enrolled in Raymond Chandler High School, as the school is a mass of secrets, intrigue and lies. What initially seemed like a simple murder soon involves illicit relationships between students and teachers, misuse of the teacher’s pension fund, blackmail, and stalking.

That dude's hair is responsible for, like, half the hole in the ozone layer.

That dude’s hair is responsible for, like, half the hole in the ozone layer.

All of this is overplayed and overheated (much as the dilapidated school is overheated, causing everyone to wear a perpetual sheen of perspiration) to absurd levels. What Plain Clothes seems to understand that most high school movies don’t is that the whole concept of high school is patently ludicrous. John Hughes may have seen high school as a complex ecosystem of sensitive young people finding their way in the world, but let’s be realistic here—high school takes hormonally-crazed teenagers, locks them in close confines with members of the opposite sex, and then charges underpaid, socially-vilified adults with teaching them complex concepts. Holy shit, it’s laughable. You’d have better luck trying to teach over-caffeinated spider monkeys than your average teenager.

Though having teachers that look like this helps a lot.

Though having teachers that look like this helps a lot.

Employing the same detached introversion that made him so unsettling in Rubicon, Howard—a consummate under-actor—makes the ideal straight man against this lunacy. Howard can land a joke with just a withering stare or a perfectly-timed eye roll. He never mugs or plays to camera, choosing instead to be droll and ironic. When he tells his over-enthusiastic math tutor, “Geometry isn’t going to play the key role in our lives you think it is,” I wanted to shout, “testify, brother!”

Howard is given a big assist by an immensely-talented supporting cast. George Wendt is the shop teacher, convinced of the life-transforming powers of woodworking. Robert Stack is the half-checked-out principal who rambles grouchily into the open PA mic. Diane Ladd is an office secretary with a dark secret, and Seymour Cassel is Nick’s veteran partner who thinks this whole endeavor is nuts but goes along anyway just to see what happens. Hell, even an impossibly young Max Perlich shows up sporting a truly heroic flattop.

“The band saw is your lord and savior.”

According to IMDB, Plain Clothes, netted just under $250,000 in the box office, which…well, ouch. And that’s too bad, since it’s a fuck ton better than pretty much any of the other teen-oriented comedies that came out that year. Finally, it’s available on streaming and Blu-Ray, which is a minor vindication.

And, hey, Arliss Howard is still working steadily. Plus, he married Debra Winger, so everybody wins.

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