Review: Vibes (1988)

Before Mill Creek Entertainment announced 1988's Vibes as part of their latest wave of retro VHS-style slipcover Blu-rays, I hadn't even heard of the movie, at least not that I can remember. Yet, something about it immediately ignited my interest. In part, it was the cast: Jeff Goldblum, Cyndi Lauper, and Lieutenant Columbo himself, Peter Falk. Maybe it was that cover image, recreating the stunning video cassette box art. Maybe it was even the font of the title logo, which screams 1988 and ignites my nostalgia for the long-gone days of my childhood. Regardless, I couldn't wait to pop Vibes into my Blu-ray player.

I was not disappointed.

The movie is delightfully quirky, seemingly in service of no particular direction or tone. At some points, it's a comedy about characters who are gifted with psychic abilities, while at others, it's a romance. Still at other times, it's an adventure movie that seems to be chasing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone. It also manages to be a buddy comedy about two opposites that are thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. Somehow, the movie is all of these things while never leaning particularly into pursuing any of them.

All this serves as a reminder that once, not so long ago, movies could chase their own whimsy without a studio controlling all aspects of a film. In this case, the film was produced by Ron Howard and his Imagine Entertainment production company, with distribution from Columbia Pictures. Vibes hit theaters just a few months after Willow, Ron Howard's first directorial effort for Lucasfilm. All that goes to say, Howard is no stranger to whimsy, and he seems to have let the director of Vibes, Ken Kwapis (He Said, She Said, Follow That Bird) and his screenwriters, which include the writers of Splash (1984), make a movie as offbeat and as schizophrenic as they dared.

The main attraction of Vibes is the cast. Jeff Goldblum, somewhere between The Fly and Earth Girls Are Easy, is our lead actor, but Cyndi Lauper steals the show in her acting debut. My sweet lord, Cyndi owns this movie. Whatever she's doing feels less like a performance and more of a line reading, but given how unique she looks, sounds, and appears (she's so unusual, after all), she makes everything feel electric. I came away from this movie feeling like I've taken Lauper for granted all these years. Sure, I love the song from The Goonies, and I'll crank up the radio for Time After Time, but have I truly appreciated that I live in a world where we have Cyndi Lauper? No, I have not. I wonder if it's possible to watch this movie and not fall a little bit for her. I sure have.
It's worth pointing out that the supporting cast of Vibes is not too shabby, either. Peter Falk, an actor who made a career out of appearing that he was in on a joke that the rest of us weren't privy to, plays his part with relish, one foot over the line into camp at all times. Steve Buscemi has what feels like a walk-on role here, but he makes it memorable. And Julian Sands, that's right, Warlock himself, stars as a medical doctor who hangs out with our resident psychics.
There's not much point in discussing the plot of Vibes, because--let's face it--that's not what this movie brings to the table. Cinematography, though? Unique locations? Memorable characters that feel like we haven't seen them a hundred times before? Oh yeah, that's here in spades. Did I mention most of the movie takes place in South America? I didn't? The movie transports us from the urban confines of New York City to the wilderness of Ecuador, lingering among the exotic mountains and lush greenery of wide open spaces far, far away. Why? Because it can.
Vibes is not a smashing success in the conventional ways that we gauge such things. The screenplay would never get an award nomination and the acting performances are off center, to say the least. But this movie feels like it can go anywhere and do anything, with no regard to the confines of a particular genre. Consider this gem of a verbal exchange, which takes place after a man has just shot a nurse in a hospital:

Man to Jeff Goldblum: "I'm going to have to kill you."
Jeff Goldbum: "Why? Another nurse will be along any second."

The humor is omni-present, but so subtle and dry that almost every joke is underplayed in a way that I find really refreshing. This movie is completely comfortable with playing by its own rules; it invites us to come along, but it isn't eager to please us. It's just doing its thing, and if we like it, cool. If not, oh well. In that sense, it embodies the same punk-rock uniqueness that made Cyndi Lauper a household name in the first place.
I would also be remiss if I didn't point out that the movie ends with a KILLER Cyndi song called "Hole in my Heart (All the Way to China)" that I've learned is something of a rarity in her catalog, at least in America. It adorned the end of this movie during the closing credits, was released as a single in international markets, and then didn't show up on an official album release until 15 years after the movie had come and gone. It's a great song, and is another gift this movie has given me.

The fact that Vibes has been an obscure title, difficult to find on home media since the fade of the VHS era, is a testament to how far off the radar it truly is, and I'm very thankful to Mill Creek Entertainment for resurrecting this hidden gem for the HD era. Their Blu-ray offers what appears to be a dated high definition transfer, but given the obscurity of this film and the fact that Sony (who holds the keys to Columbia Pictures catalog) isn't likely to do a new remaster any time soon, I'm fairly comfortable saying this is the most love that this wacky little piece of cinema is likely to get, and I'm grateful to have it.
I had a BLAST with Vibes, and I'm eager to revisit it. Not only that, but it's put Cyndi Lauper back on my radar in the best of ways. It's a strange film, but that's a high compliment in this age of homogenization and movies made by committee rather than singular vision. There are those who will say that the movie is a bomb, but for me, finding it has been like discovering lost treasure.


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