“Wisdom” (1986), with Emilio Estevez

 “Wisdom”is easily one of the dopiest made-in-earnest films I’ve ever seen, and not only because its star, writer and director, Emilio Estevez, has named the lead character after the title. (It’s not on Netflix but can be viewed on YouTube). Estevez has a comically sulky face that can’t be taken seriously when it explodes in indignation. His stone-faced disdain is the essence of what’s funny in “Repo Man,” one of my favorite films of all time. His teenage punk character is so unflappable and cut off from other people, so unmoved to react emotionally to even mind-boggling stimuli–such as a car trunk full of glowing aliens–that you laugh through your shock at his callousness. (At the end of “Repo Man,” Estevez is invited by a deadbeat to join him on a flying car ride; “What about our relationship?” asks his sweet but nagging love interest, and Estevez, eyes still fixated on the car, snorts “Fuck that” and leaves her. It’s a joyously scabrous finish).

Here, Estevez sulks, all right, he’s mad at the world, to be certain, but his character is bland, speechifying, didactic. John Wisdom is a relatively clean-cut suburban boy–he calls his parents, coyly, by their first names–who can’t rise above a janitor job because of a drunken car theft on his permanent record. Wisdom–and probably Estevez–considers this to be an innocent “prank” that the professional world is unjustly punishing him for; my gut reaction is that some innocent people lost their car, and that Wisdom deserves punishment. (Estevez’ bro Charlie Sheen, in a rare stroke of modesty, plays a wordless scene in a cameo as one of Wisdom’s bosses; he is seen from afar, angrily firing Wisdom.)

Anyway, the disgruntled Wisdom decides there’s no choice but to turn to crime. In the funniest scene, he walks pensively around his various hangout spots–an arcade, a mall–while contemplating which crime to do (he considers murder for a second). In voice over, Estevez says, in his patented Valley-Boy-attempting-depth accent: “I was a criminal…without a crime.” That dilemma is solved when Wisdom tunes in to a TV news special on the plight of poor people losing their homes via foreclosures. He decides he’ll rob banks–not of their money, but of their mortgage documents, so the banks can’t foreclose. His girlfriend (Demi Moore) is dragged into his scheme accidentally; she drives him to the bank but doesn’t know his plan and, not realizing she’s providing the getaway car, drives off to get a Tofutti. Estevez emerges, frantic, with gun in hand, and when Moore drives up he screams at her for getting the Tofutti. (It’s even funnier, later on, to watch the screaming, folder-throwing, rifle-wielding Estevez in robbing action).

I’m not sure I can quite recommend “Wisdom” as a so-bad-it’s-good film. At first, you laugh over how seriously Estevez regards this ridiculous, hackneyed plot (it steals from “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” quite shamelessly), but then the earnestness grows depressing, and you’re lulled to a stupor by the film’s lame stabs at lyrical romance (lots of kissy sunset tableaux here) and the groaningly lame subplot about the town folk hailing Estevez and Moore as heroes. Moore is given nothing to do but react to Estevez, with either loyalty or incredulity that turns quickly back to loyalty. She’s so saintly that she smiles sweetly at Estevez even after the police have shot her in the chest and he leaves her to flee the scene. This is a loathsome, decidedly unheroic move, but the film is too gutless to explore that irony. When Wisdom meets his end–he’s shot in the bleachers of a football stadium–the officer says “You left me no choice,” and Wisdom purrs back “You left me none either,” as the synth swells on the soundtrack. The film doesn’t even end there; it cops out with an “is it all a dream?” sequence.

Estevez has since made more competent films, and I’d love to interview him about this early misstep, but he’s notorious for refusing to talk about the past (he wouldn’t even do commentary on the “Repo Man” DVD, which so angered its director, Alex Cox, that he launched a written war of words). You can just blame it on the folly of youth. As Paul Attanasio (former critic for the Washington Post, now a screenwriter) wrote in his review, “If you cornered Darryl Zanuck 50 years ago and told him that the studio he was building would end up giving entire movies to “stars” barely out of puberty, he might have collapsed on the spot.”

Estevez did make a few brief remarks, in a series of late-’80s and early-’90s interviews, about what he learned from the overwhelming experience of being Hollywood’s then-youngest triple threat (he later directed, wrote and co-starred, with Sheen, in the garbage man comedy flop “Men at Work,” which has at least obtained cult status.) “People seemed to have an attitude about the fact that I got to direct at 23 years old, that such a young guy didn’t deserve so much responsibility,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in August 1987. “But for me, the filmmaking process was wonderful, an incredible learning experience. Looking back, and I just saw it recently, ‘Wisdom’ is not a great film. It had problems structurally, but it was not a bad film, either. There is a lot in that picture that I’m very proud of, and a lot that I’m embarrassed about. But it’s history, and I’m looking forward to applying the tools that I learned from it.” In 1996, he told the LA Times, “I’m not a writer, and it was evident. These [early] films never had a solid foundation to begin with, and that was my fault.”

5 thoughts on ““Wisdom” (1986), with Emilio Estevez

  1. The Good-hearted Bandit

    Emilio at least had his heart in the right place and was way ahead of his time; just look at the global economic mess we are in right now and where it actually started…

    The script was “okay,” meaning it actually had something to address to society compared to the typical Hollywood schlock audiences are forced to sit through today and brainwashed into purchasing a ton of unnecessary materialistic goods (like the laptop I am using to type this up as a solid example…).

    1. daryn

      I totally agree with you..Most of the reviews for this movie are coming from the New York Times or Chicago Tribune..Geeezzz I wounder why they would slam this movie??? Nothing was written like this in the era it was in…I say FUCK the Reuters owned corporate pyramid protecting mother fu#kers.

  2. Pingback: Review: ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 2 Finale Unleashes Its Patient Predators – pintoday.com

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