It’s easy to tell a bad movie from a good movie, but sometimes it’s interesting to look at a movie that was almost good.
Everyone knows Clueless. Few ever saw Vamps even though it reteams Alicia Silverstone with director Amy Heckerling. Vamps’ elevator pitch was probably Clueless meets Sex in the City.
The setting may be Sex in the City, but the cultural commentary is Clueless. Vamps has a lot in common stylistically with the original Buffy movie which was fun in its own way. Its gags are a lot like the gags in the original Buffy flick, goofy and self-consciously over the top with a plot that has elements of Death Becomes Her.
Vamps is very much a 90s movie even though it was released in 2012. Even its desperate contemporary references, to the Patriot Act and the iPhone, feel barely post-90s. There’s actually a screenshot of Napster at one point. In 2012.
Its version of New York City seems to come from Friends. It exists in that universe in which the city was a guilt-free playground for wacky free spirits who walked around with their own laugh tracks. But Silverstone’s Goody shares Cher’s sweet nature and helpful ways and the movie even has a lot of the same charm as Clueless.
There are good performances here, including a surprisingly understated moving one from Richard Lewis. There’s also an over the top bad one from Sigourney Weaver. The special effects are bad, but there are lovely scenes of Goody seeing flashes of the old New York City across the new one.
This is a movie with gags and meditations about age. It has plenty of funny and touching moments. So what went wrong?
Vamps takes on aging the way that Clueless took on cliques. But not nearly as well. It almost worked. Vamps on one level offers a commentary about the social cost of aging and trying to look young. And on another, it’s a vampire spoof in which a modern Van Helsing uses bureaucracy to pursue vampires.
Both ideas have a lot of promise and they lift up the movie, but they never do the really hard thing, which is come together. Instead Heckerling sharply transitions from Wallace Shawn’s Van Helsing going from being ready to stake Goody to empathizing with her past tragedies. Awkward bridges like that show their stitching.
The funniest stuff in Vamps comes from the supporting cast of vampires, from Malcolm McDowell to Justin Kirk. It comes from Wallace Shawn’s hunt for them. The least funny stuff is at the center of the movie, Alicia Silverstone and Kyrsten Ritter in pink coffins. And so Vamps isn’t a particularly funny movie when they’re on screen.
Vamps could have been a biting commentary on aging and dating in New York City, but Heckerling doesn’t let it get anywhere near biting territory. It’s not just the coffins that are pink. Heckerling avoids sharp writing and conflict and darker emotions. Instead Vamps is a PG movie dressed in more adult clothing.
That leaves Vamps not funny enough to be the Arachnophobia or Buffy (the movie, not the show) that it could have been and not sharp enough to be the dark biting social critique that it could have been.
Unlike Loser, Heckerling doesn’t even manage to convincingly show the sweet good people at the center winning against evil. There may be blood and bodies, but no real evil in Vamps. Vamps has an emptiness at the center of it that it never fills. Neither do its protagonists.
Amy Heckerling brings her own obsessions with the younger man and older woman pairing to create some embarrassing scenes. The entire movie can be seen as a vehicle for letting Krysten Ritter’s 80s girl Stacey have a baby and a younger man. It doesn’t help that Ritter could also stand in for Amy Heckerling.
Clueless talked over teens, but it also talked to them. Vamps is full of rants about cell phones and instant messaging. Alicia Silverstone plays them as sweetly as she can, but it’s hard to disguise how different they are from Cher’s cultural critiques in Clueless. Clueless didn’t hate teens. Vamps sets out to alienate an audience it dislikes.
Retooled, Vamps could have played to teens. But Heckerling didn’t want to speak to them. She was talking to an older audience. An audience that might have been in their teens when it saw Clueless, but isn’t looking to go any deeper, just older. And that might have worked too. But there are other problems.
Amy Heckerling has gotten sloppy. Not a lot, but enough that some scenes don’t flow well and the pacing is off. It’s not punishing, but it weakens the movie and kills gags that might have worked. Heckerling’s brand of comedy depends on characters. The movie is weakest when Silverstone and Ritter can’t carry it.
And it’s Krysten Ritter that’s the problem.
Ritter is a good actress, but she’s not the best choice to play an innocent and naive 80s teen. Maybe she’s the worst choice. Her best moments are darker ones. Matching her with Silverstone’s blithe Goody doesn’t work. The two actresses don’t gel well. Ritter can’t breathe feeling into bland dialogue the way Alicia Silverstone does. It’s the nastier comebacks and scenes where she shines. A smarter movie would have played that in a Single White Female way. Vamps could done that, but then it would have been forced to take away Heckerling’s happy ending in which Ritter walks away with a younger man and a baby.
Amy Heckerling sacrificed Vamps to her idea of the happy ending.
You can read Vamps as a coda to Heckerling’s career. She’s been associated with teen movies and she’s tired of it. At the end, she doesn’t want to try and keep up with teen slang or understand why they text each other instead of talking. She wants her main character to walk away 40, but looking like 20, with a baby and a man half her age.
Audiences can swallow vampires, but some fantasies are too hard to accept.