Welcome back to The Rules of Attrachtenberg, a series here at That’s Not Current in which we highlight the filmography of actress Michelle Trachtenberg. You can read the first entry for a more detailed explanation as to why, but it essentially boils down to the fact that she’s simply a talented and underrated actress with an almost staggeringly diverse body of work. For the previous entry, we selected a movie in which Trachtenberg was the female lead. Her performance was front and center in that film and that is, admittedly, not the case this time around.
Instead, we’ll be looking at film in which she probably has only ten minutes of screen time, but makes the absolute most of it. Few people can demonstrate leading and character actor potential, but Michelle Trachtenberg does just that in Take Me Home Tonight.
The film is a comedy set in the mid-1980s about a directionless young man who’s mostly content working at Suncoast Video if only because he has no idea what the actual hell he wants to do with his life. Take Me Home Tonight is easily categorized with teen comedies of the high school/college variety. It feels like those and probably belongs in the same group. But the thing that makes this feel a little more fresh is that it’s set after college, it’s set right in that time when everyone’s truly drifting apart and people are starting to cement themselves in the work force. No one really thinks enough about what an awkward time that is to really make a film like this about it, but it’s all perfectly embodied in Matt Franklin, our protagonist, played by Topher Grace.
Rounding out the core set of main characters are Dan Fogler as Matt’s best friend Barry, Anna Farris as Matt’s twin sister, Wendy, and Teresa Palmer as Tori Frederking, the girl Matt’s been in love with since grade school. Looking at the major cast, there’s one other really impressive thing this film does that it doesn’t get credit for: the feature is set in Los Angeles and literally has nothing to do with the movie industry. Nobody’s trying to make it big, nobody’s trying to get into it, this is just where they happen to live and that’s that.
Matt is, I think, a sympathetic protagonist, especially for those who weren’t entirely sure what they wanted to do after college or even high school. He’s stuck. Sure, in his job, and that’s a major character and plot point for him, the fact that he doesn’t even seem to want to be anything but a video store clerk (Although, side bar, in 2017 I can kind of relate) But he’s also completely stuck inside the person he was in high school. He wants to pretend to be someone cooler than he is to impress the girl of his dreams and it obviously spirals out of control. But the clever and revealing point to it is that this is the person he is. He’s a very smart guy, he’s just too stupid to know when and where to apply that.
The defining moment for Matt’s character—and especially his budding relationship with Tori—comes when he’s put on the spot by Tori’s superior to prove that he works at Goldman Sachs when he clearly does not. What could be a scene of comedic blubbering, accidentally saying the right thing to cover his ass, instead turns into a surprisingly intense moment of Matt breaking down numbers and proving his worth to someone who clearly views him as intellectual inferior and who had just put him on the spot to make him squirm.
The moment that Matt has that high ground, too, he’s able to very slyly insinuate that he’s aware of this boss’s sexual harassment accusations and that it’s a very serious thing to get taken to court over now that people are really starting to pay attention to it. Michael Ian Black is one of the most non-threatening actors around, so this scene was also really necessary just to sell what a creep his character is.
The best thing about the film might be the way it handles the teen comedy trope of the supportive best friend. Topher Grace’s performance echoes back to Ethan Embry in Can’t Hardly Wait and several John Cusack movies before that. Just because he’s a well-rounded character doesn’t mean that he’s not seriously representative of a character type. And that character almost always has a very supportive best friend to be their voice of reason and guide them through their crisis.
Barry’s not here for that. Barry gets fired right at the beginning of the film and his entire journey throughout the movie is a hard and fast downward spiral. Yes, the point is that he’s letting loose in a way he never would before, but holy shit, it’s also pretty bleak. Matt does try to hold Barry back from some of the things he’s doing, but he’s got his own thing going on and the two friends get separated for a good chunk of the feature when Matt actually begins to connect with Tori—leading us into a surprisingly charming Before Sunrise-ish second act.
Part of the appeal of the way Take Me Home Tonight subverts the tropes of its genre is that Matt doesn’t spend all night trying to express his feelings. Tori effectively falls for him about halfway through, turning the rest of the film into an attempt to regain her trust.
The problem is that Barry needs to be supervised because he is racing to hit rock bottom as hard as he can. It’s a night of heavy drinking and even heavier drug use with no best friend to really pull him back or, at the very least, guide him through it at first.
And that’s where Michelle Trachtenberg comes in.
She plays a character apparently named Ashley, though she’s never actually referred to by name. She only prominently appears in three scenes, but they’re three scenes in which her character is absolutely necessary, serves a purpose, and in which she manages to steal the scene from Dan Fogler (who is at the height of his powers throughout this whole movie) all three times.
The trope she fits into is one I really, really wish we would see more of because it would easily be one of my favorites. Michelle Trachtenberg is the Wise Goth. She’s fringe, she’s on the outskirts, she doesn’t care what anyone thinks and when she bothers to offer an actual opinion, it’s generally insightful. But she’s not here to simply be a Greek Chorus in heavy eyeliner, she’s the one who sees Barry for who he is. At first, the attraction is immediate when she sees him making an ass of himself and getting into a fight on the dance floor for no reason other than his total inability to read the room. Ashley interprets this as anti-establishment, which makes the dynamic between them that much more absurd and intriguing.
Whereas Matt and Tori appear to start a relationship at the end, despite her catching his outright lie and the fucked up falling out of that—which she handles very well, for the record–it’s more than likely, when the three heroes go off together at the end, that Barry will probably never see Ashley again. That’s maybe the most interesting thing about that relationship. He is never going to see her again after that night and is not even about to tell his friends about her the next morning. Neither Matt nor Wendy ever share a scene with her. The time between them was only between them and much of a train wreck as Barry’s night was, there’s this really positive thread in there that he just gets to keep to himself. That little detail is surprisingly intimate and sweet.
Take Me Home Tonight is not without flaws. It’s pretty by-the-numbers on the surface, Matt does some shit he probably shouldn’t be forgiven for right away, not every joke lands and, man, the ages of the cast really do not add up. For one thing, Topher Grace and Teresa Palmer are playing love interests from the same high school graduating class, but he’s almost ten years older than she is. And it’s not un-noticeable.
But it’s surprisingly refreshing, completely heartfelt and at times really, really funny. Both Matt and Tori are equally well-developed and that makes a huge difference for a movie like this. It doesn’t always happen. If you’re watching Take Me Home Tonight solely for Michelle Trachtenberg, the movie certainly doesn’t belong to her. This is not a case of her virtually sharing the whole film with two other actors, like Mysterious Skin. She’d be a background role if she didn’t stand out so damn much, but luckily she does and as a result, her scenes are so worth it.