For (ahem) some of your Rotten Tomatoes editors, 1988 might seem like it was only yesterday — but the painful truth is that it was actually almost a quarter century ago, and thus fair game for gleefully retro comedies like this weekend’s Take Me Home Tonight, which takes us (and a cast that includes Topher Grace and Anna Faris) back to the year of perestroika, the Seoul Summer Olympics, and the Bush/Dukakis election. In that spirit, we decided to take our own trip back in time for this week’s list, and revisit the year’s biggest box office hits (according to Box Office Mojo). Grab your Walkman, break out your NES, and Total Recall like it’s 1988!
Boasting eye-catching special effects, a perfectly manic Michael Keaton in the title role, and some of the most judicious use of Harry Belafonte in film soundtrack history, Beetlejuice made the afterlife look like fun while cementing director Tim Burton’s status as a purveyor of filmgoer-friendly weirdness — and it helped make stars out of Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder in the bargain. More than just a fine early example of Burton’s skewed sensibilities, Beetlejuice remains a thoroughly enjoyable comedy — as well as a source of entertainment for a seemingly reluctant Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who deemed it “An appealing mess.”
Most of 1988’s biggest box office hits were also critical favorites, but there were two big exceptions, and one of them was Cocktail. Starring Tom Cruise as a shallow bartender who finds salvation in fancy mixed drinks and the love of a good woman (Elisabeth Shue), this glitzy drama racked up nearly $80 million in U.S. theaters, and its soundtrack spun off a pair of Number One hits with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” — but it also won a pair of Razzies (including Worst Picture) and notched a lowly 14 percent on the Tomatometer. Any movie that co-stars Bryan Brown can’t be all bad; still, it’s hard to argue with the words of eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg, who called it “Puddle-deep and coated in neon.”
The movie that spawned a trilogy, rescued the unjustly canceled Police Squad! series from the TV graveyard, and turned Leslie Nielsen into the go-to guy for spoof comedies, The Naked Gun brought filmgoers another 85 minutes of impeccably deadpan goofball humor from the makers of Airplane! and Top Secret! — and filmgoers ate it up to the tune of nearly $80 million at the box office. And unlike a lot of movies in the genre, critics liked it too — like Roger Ebert, who called it “as funny as any comedy released this year, with the exception of A Fish Called Wanda” and sighed appreciatively, “You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing.”
Later installments in the series may have taken the title a little too seriously, but when Die Hard debuted in 1988, it represented a return to reality of sorts for the action thriller genre. Unlike increasingly bulbous action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis looked like a fairly average guy — and he acted pretty much the way you’d expect a good cop to act if he were trapped in a skyscraper with a pack of terrorists, which is to say he was bleeding, confused, and frightened for most of the movie. Audiences, meanwhile, were thoroughly entertained — and so were critics like the New York Times’ Caryn James, who wrote, “The scenes move with such relentless energy and smashing special-effects extravagance that Die Hard turns out to be everything action-genre fans, and Bruce Willis’s relieved investors, might have hoped for.”
“Crocodile” Dundee was an out-of-nowhere smash in 1986, topping global box office tallies for the year, setting a new American record for foreign film grosses, and turning its star and co-screenwriter, Paul Hogan, into an Oscar-winning Hollywood phenomenon. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when, two years later, “Crocodile” Dundee II showed up in theaters and raked in a whopping $109 million — but while audiences couldn’t get enough of Hogan’s fish-out-of-water antics, critics were far less amused the second time around, bestowing the sequel with a woeful 12 percent Tomatometer rating. The Northwest Herald’s Jeffrey Westhoff was particularly withering, decreeing it “The most boring comedy I have ever seen.” (True to his word, Mr. Westhoff gave a slightly more positive — but still rotten — review to 2001’s long-delayed, best-forgotten “Crocodile” Dundee in Los Angeles.)
As far back as The Terminator, film fans knew Arnold Schwarzenegger could sling one-liners as comfortably as he crippled bad guys, but he didn’t make the leap to full-on comedy until 1988’s Twins, a dash of high-concept daffiness from director Ivan Reitman that imagined a world in which Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito shared a womb. With an idea like that, the jokes write themselves — or they should have, anyway. While audiences lined up for more than $111 million worth of Twins tickets, most critics were yawning their way through a storyline involving a genetics experiment gone awry, industrial espionage, and the search for the brothers’ long-lost mother. It is, as Jeffrey M. Anderson wrote for Combustible Celluloid, “An idea that began and ended with the casting session” — but it could have been worse: Before signing on for Twins, Schwarzenegger and DeVito were offered Suburban Commando.
All things considered, Big probably shouldn’t have been a hit: Not only was Tom Hanks in the midst of a string of critical and/or commercial disappointments that dated back to 1985’s The Man with One Red Shoe, but it was also the fourth age-swapping film to reach theaters in a year, and none of the others did particularly well at the box office. Then again, none of those movies had Tom Hanks jumping on a giant floor keyboard — or, for that matter, the subtle depth and vulnerability Hanks brought to the role of Josh Baskin, a 13-year-old who desperately wants to be “big” and gets much more than he bargained for. Earning Hanks his first Oscar nomination — and $115 million — Big was also one of the year’s (ahem) biggest critical winners thanks to reviews from writers like Time’s Gerald Clarke, who mused, “For an adult to play a child is probably more difficult even than for an actor with 20/20 vision to play a blind man; it requires a whole new way of looking, talking and thinking. But Hanks, who emerges from this film as one of Hollywood’s top comic actors, is both believable and touching as a boy lost in a grownup world.”
The years ahead would bring some powerfully bitter disappointments for Eddie Murphy fans, but in 1988, it seemed like he might go on making us laugh forever, and Coming to America was just the latest on a growing list of reasons to believe. At bottom, it was really just a less violent, more cheerfully exotic version of the fish-out-of-water story Murphy told as Axel Foley in the Beverly Hill Cop movies — but that’s still a pretty funny story, especially when you throw in Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, and a few bottles of Soul Glo. “Eddie Murphy does everything in this movie successfully,” wrote Brad Laidman of Film Threat, “which was probably a bad idea because it made him think that he could write and direct Harlem Nights.”
Blending mile-a-minute slapstick humor, dozens of cameos from beloved cartoon characters, and dazzling, cutting-edge live-action/animation techniques, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? justified its lengthy development (and $70 million budget) with a whopping $156 million gross — not to mention four Academy Awards. With its PG rating and the dangerous curves of Jessica Rabbit (voiced with unbridled va-va-vivaciousness by Kathleen Turner), Roger Rabbit may not have been as family-friendly as, say, Oliver and Company or The Land Before Time — but it was still, in the words of the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, “as cunning as Wile E. Coyote and chipper as a flock of cartoon bluebirds.”
The same year he was slinging drinks (and drawing heaping critical barbs) in Cocktail, Tom Cruise also co-starred with a living legend in a four-time Oscar winner that also turned out to be a $350 million hit. We’re talking, of course, about Rain Man, Barry Levinson’s road trip movie about a callow car dealer (Cruise) who learns he has an autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) after their father dies — and who quickly sets about trying to divest him of the $3 million estate he’s inherited. Was it shameless Oscar bait? You bet — but it was also tightly scripted, well-directed, and capably carried by its leads. “Though it is in many respects just another odd couple road movie,” wrote Chris Hicks of the Deseret News, “Rain Man evolves into a very special film, largely because it is about something.”