The Malibu Bikini Shop

(aka The Bikini Shop, David Wechter, USA, 1986)


The Week in Film [a program that ran on Australian radio for 25 years] brings you an unfamiliar voice – me – while regular critic John Hinde [1911-2006] takes a well-deserved fortnight’s holiday. For the term of my brief residency here, I hope to provide a perspective on cinema that is, with all due respect, a little different from John’s.


Actually, I’ve been handed a somewhat tough job, as no new films have been released in Sydney in the past week. Fortunately, due to the Christmas rush, there’s always a few that get left behind, and I want to pick one of them up for you here: a modest B movie called The Bikini Shop, a title shortened for local consumption from The Malibu Bikini Shop. In fact, it’s been running in cinemas for a while, although you may not have heard or read anything much about it. It’s the type of little film that, indeed, inspires me – which is more than I can say for the big, major release of the coming week, Sidney Lumet’s The Morning After (1986), starring Jane Fonda as a tortured lush. That one is a typically “serious” A grade film, and it angers and depresses me.


First, The Malibu Bikini Shop. I want to start outside the theatre, with its poster. Movie posters have always fascinated me, because they let you know very quickly what kind of film (according to somebody’s judgement) they are selling, and whether it is your kind of film – or not. Niche marketing, I guess that’s called. Take, for example, the posters for The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Extremities (1986). They use the identical visual device: a huge, soulful close-up of the main actor (respectively, Harrison Ford and Farrah Fawcett Majors) – and that actor is, naturally, very gravely and deeply “in character”. So you know immediately what these films want to be: sombre, profound, psychological character dramas. They may be adaptations of some terribly important novel or play. They are, in short, middle-class films for middle-class audiences. Hallelujah!


When I was finally able to wrench my gaze away from those giant mournful poster-eyes, I turned to the ad for The Malibu Bikini Shop. It carries a very different image: three full-length bodies dressed in swimwear, situated in a brightly coloured change room. Two girls are looking down merrily on a boy, who may have been just been engaged in some furtive, voyeuristic, adolescent activity – that is, until he’s caught out. This poster is simple, garish, spectacular, slightly rude. It took me a few seconds to notice something else about it: it’s completely contrived and artificial, for the three people in the photo do not even appear in the film itself. It’s a total promotional fabrication.


Personally, I do not consider this an instance of cheap, cynical, exploitative advertising – or rather, I don’t consider it as only that. I find the poster’s attitude rather creative, amusing and, ultimately, honest. It’s fake, but it knows it’s fake – and it lets you in on the gag. It’s silly and plastic, and doesn’t try to stun us with pretensions of high seriousness. Which is to say, it’s a lot like the movie it advertises, which is also shamelessly cheap, vulgar and exploitative. Truth in advertising, at last!


The humour of The Malibu Bikini Shop is based on the deflating of pompous pretensions, and the celebration of tacky artificiality. It’s my kind of film. Let me tell you about one of its best scenes: a contest for the Sexiest Tan on Santa Monica Beach. As a gaggle of girls parade themselves on stage to a disco beat, you notice something slightly odd: all of them are wearing their bathing costumes in such a way as not to hide, but precisely to show off their tan lines – it’s logical, I guess, because how could the extent of their tan be judged, otherwise? Having assimilated this point, we get a gag that is a parody of the classic compere-interviews-contestant routine from every beauty contest, staged or real. The hunky hero of the film, Alan (Michael David Wright, who had a brief 1980s career in cinema and TV), shoves a microphone in the face of one particular girl, and asks something to the effect: “What are your main interests and goals in life?” She wiggles and squeals: “I don’t know!”, and the crowd for this event goes wild with appreciative applause. So did the audience in the Hoyts movie theatre where I was sitting. And me, too.


You may be thinking: there’s something undoubtedly perverse about discussing The Malibu Bikini Shop in this way on the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], and on this particular program (which, to be fair, does not always, or as a rule, take a High Art approach to film). There’s a point to my intervention here. For this is the type of movie that is rarely discussed seriously on programs like The Week in Film, or in the review pages of our serious, “quality” newspapers. Let me be perfectly clear: it’s not discussed seriously because it’s not discussed at all!


If, for example, you look up the Sydney Morning Herald’s capsule review in its weekly entertainment guide, you’ll find only one, duly italicised word: unpreviewed. Unpreviewed means that the reviewer could not be bothered actually going to see it (as I did) with a general, paying audience. It means the film’s commercial distributor probably didn’t bother (wisely, in all likelihood) to organise a preview for journalists and critics. (It’s not their kind of film.) It may also mean – I’m speculating here – that the reviewer considers the film utterly below his or her normal “standard” of professional moviegoing fare. Which is a pity in the case of The Malibu Bikini Shop, because the wonderful scene of the girls parading n Rambo swimwear and carrying submachine guns would surely be worth a paragraph or two of righteous indignation in The Age or Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian newspapers, don't you think? The most subversive (and/or outrageous) stuff has disappeared under the radar once more, drats!


The Malibu Bikini Shop is not a great film (there, I’ve said it), but it’s still a film, it exists; and it’s worth asking why it meets such a level of official, public neglect. In the event, it slips unnoticed from theatre projection to the video shop; while arguments rage in the culture columns as to whether The Mosquito Coast is a faithful or valid adaptation of an important, serious Paul Theroux novel – an argument I’m entirely happy to forego myself since, to my eyes, Weir’s film (not among his best) self-destructs on its literary pretensions.


By contrast, The Malibu Bikini Shop is a formulaic piece, a genre film in that most despised of genres: the teen movie. This fine genre (one of my favourites) runs all the way from the Porky’s and Police Academy series to The Sure Thing (1985) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). For reviewers in search of certified “quality” product – such as the latest, annual Woody Allen film – a formula for easy dismissal comes readily to hand: “It’s just a teen movie”. I find this routine dismissal (you hear it everywhere these days) hard to utter, since it is clear (to me, at least) that some teen movies, like Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) or Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) are among the highest achievements of contemporary American cinema. And these films are great because of all the lesser teen movies like Porky’s (1981) that feed into them, not despite or beyond them. That’s the Law of Genre, folks.


Now, The Malibu Bikini Shop is certainly a teen movie. Its script could have been spat out by a computer well-fed with the key moves and tropes inherent in the genre. It has a familiar premise of two brothers, one wild (our hero) and the other stuffy (Bruce Greenwood – unlike Wright, destined for a long screen career – as Todd). It has a typical plot, concerning Todd having to make a physical voyage – interstate to take over management of his late aunt’s bikini shop – which is also a voyage of self-discovery and liberation (teen-style liberation, naturally). It includes many unashamedly blatant scenes in which both the guys and the camera ogle at beautiful young women in bikinis (or less), accompanied by a pop song that breezily and unambiguously declares: “We’re Just Lookin’!” It has simple, crude jokes, and around 101 potentially offensive social stereotypes: from the miserly Jewish lawyer to the grotesquely fat older woman in search of a slinky bikini (well, if Jerzy Skolimowski can include scenes like that with Diana Dors in the bathhouse of Deep End [1970], why can’t David Wechter?). It has some supremely subversive moments, such as when a perusal of the sweet old deceased aunt’s bedroom reveals a stunning collection of sex toys and porno videos.


The Malibu Bikini Shop is crazy, manically life-affirming and perfectly ephemeral. Will it stay in my head for long? Maybe not, but that period will surely be twice longer than for The Morning After. I choose to celebrate such qualities when I find them in movies like this, or another Christmas-time release – the sadly neglected One Crazy Summer (1986) by Savage Steve Holland.


Film reviewers of a certain breed proudly wear the badge of discernment and discrimination; they pretend to be able to sniff out the good from the bad, elevating the best and casting out the worst. It’s a missionary position. Needless to say, there are many kinds of artistic (and human!) pleasures that get brutally devalued in this process. I have never been able to swallow the idea that film reviewing should be concerned, primarily, with quality or point-scoring evaluations (although I find myself, increasingly, drawn inside this system and playing its game – hopefully to my own ends!). To truly love the cinema is, at the deepest level, to love all of it, on principle. I’m more interested in the strange, the mad or the fascinating than I am in the good and bad. I’m just lookin’, as the song says: looking at a host of movies I can neither deny nor forget.


It may seem like I have set up here a simple, rigid, opportunistic opposition between cheap, fun movies that I like, and expensive, serious ones that I don’t. But serious movies, for me, are David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly (which Mr Hinde, on this program, gave a rather raw deal) or Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) – films that are deeply important in ways that The Morning After or The Mosquito Coast can never be. So, they are among the films I will be discussing on my second and last stint on The Week in Film for 1986.


Note: This is an extract from the first of two scripts commissioned for and presented on the Australian radio program The Week in Film in late 1986. In the first week I also reviewed Soul Man and The Morning After; in the second, Avenging Force, The Hitcher, The Color of Money and The Fly – see the separate entries for these other extracts.

© Adrian Martin December 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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