A light and breezy romantic comedy that pulls its ideas from everything else popular at the time…and with a pop-star lead to sell it.
By Jason Hink
Our friends at Mill Creek Entertainment have released on Blu-ray the fun Columbia Pictures box-office bomb, 1988’s Vibes, starring girl-who-just-wants-to-have-fun Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum (how tall is he, anyway?) as quirky psychics roped into using their special abilities to help a con man try to find a long lost ancient treasure. Directed by Ken Kwapis from the story by Deborah Blum, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the adventure also stars Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Googy Gress, Ronald G. Joseph, Ramon Bieri, Michael Lerner and Steve Buscemi in an early bit part.
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When Sylvia Pickel (Cyndi Lauper in her first starring role) arrives at her apartment one late night in 1988, she’s greeted by intruder Harry (Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo), who offers her a sh*tload of dough to help him track down his missing son, who’s apparently vanished in Ecuador. Why does he want her help? Because Sylvia is a “trance-medium.” She has conversations with “Louise,” an unseen spirit guide she’s been in contact with ever since she suffered a horse-riding accident as a kid. Thinking Harry’s offer of a cool $50K sounds good, she recruits a fellow psychic she met during a gathering of psychics for a study, Nick Deezy (Jeff Goldblum), a psychometrist who can learn things about people by simply touching physical objects. Harry leads Sylvia and Nick to Ecuador to find Harry’s missing son.
Of course, as we know from the get-go, Harry’s nothing but a con artist and his cover’s blown almost immediately. There is no missing son…but despite their reservations, the money is just too good for the psychic duo to pass up, so they press on. But they’re not alone; along the way they run into Ingo (Googy Gress), another acquaintance from the psychic group, and before long it seems like everyone involved in that psychic study back home is also on the hunt…and none of them are nice about it! Who will reach the treasure first? (Just guess.) Will our heroes make it out of Ecuador alive? (It’s possible…) And will Sylvia and Nick fall in love? (It’s a romantic comedy-adventure; what do you think?)
Shot the previous year in Ecuador and Los Angeles, Vibes landed in theaters on August 5, 1988 with a thud—the film grossed just $1.9 million on an $18M budget and was lambasted by nearly every critic who reviewed it. By the time 1988 rolled around, Lauper’s music career, while still viable, had cooled from the dizzying heights of her 1983 album She’s So Unusual, which afforded the pop starlet memorable chart-topping hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop,” and “All Through the Night,” and landed her the Best New Artist award at the 1985 Grammy Awards. Lauper was so popular at the time that she became involved in the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” an association between MTV and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) that saw Lauper taking center stage at the promotion’s very first WrestleMania event in ’85 as the manager of future women’s champ Wendi Richter. But by 1988, ’80s pop and new wave, along with Lauper’s popularity, had begun their downward commercial cycle. Perhaps not wanting rival pop diva Madonna to steal all of that adjacent Hollywood thunder (Madonna had headlined three major studio films in the past three years, including big hit Desperately Seeking Susan in ’85), Lauper, while not hitting the comedy marks each time, is still charming reeling off husky one-liners in her well-known thick, NEE-YAWK accent, taking on quirky romance and adventure as the lead in 1988 with Vibes.
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I don’t remember having ever seen Vibes, and watching the Mill Creek Blu-ray didn’t jar any long lost memories. I didn’t expect to like the film; despite some flat attempts at comedy in the first 10 minutes or so, before I knew it I was an hour in, enjoying the breezy tone and light adventure. Its commercial leanings are right out in the open, an obvious attempt at cashing in on the success of previous films like Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters (in fact, it was reported that Dan Aykroyd was offered the lead but declined, opening the door for Goldblum). But it’s Romancing the Stone from which Vibes borrows most heavily, from the (very) similar settings to the near character-for-character re-casting of that film.
And speaking of characters…stealing the show in Vibes is none other than ’70s TV star himself, Peter Falk. Falk, almost 60 and still prolific in 1988, is perfect in the role of Harry Buscafusco, the wiseass, smooth-talking con who sets the entire plot into motion when he recruits Lauper’s and Goldblum’s characters to find
his missing son the lost treasure. It was Falk’s laid-back delivery of his sarcastic, comedic lines that got the most chuckles out of me…and despite the POS nature of his character, Falk does a fine job of making Harry sympathetic as the film goes on. Despite his cheating nature, you can’t help but like this lovable loser.
Meanwhile, Julian Sands is creepy as always in the role of Dr. Harrison Steele, who wants to recruit the psychic pair for a project of his own. Is he who he seems? (You’ll see.) Michael Lerner is fun as one of the first to stumble upon the “treasure” everyone seeks, which could turn out to be more treasure than everyone bargained for…and Steve Buscemi has a small, humorous scene as one of Lauper’s failed dates. In his lead role, Goldblum is good enough given the marginal material here. His intense, intellectual demeanor serves him well in Vibes, and he comes across as the only half-normal, seemingly sane person in the room. Coming two years after his noted performance in The Fly, Goldblum would follow up Vibes (and finish off his eighties output) with Earth Girls Are Easy, The Tall Guy and the Spanish erotic thriller, Twisted Obsession.
Mill Creek’s Blu-ray is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and looks great to these eyes. There are no bonus or extra features on the disc, but it arrives as part of Mill Creek’s popular “Retro VHS Slipcover” series, which is simply a slipcover (O-ring) that recreates the look of the Vibes VHS tape (and part of the actual video tape itself) that you might have seen on the shelves of your local video store back in the 80s and 90s (complete with a “Heat Kills” sticker that also reminds you to rewind the tape, or else pay a 50-cent fine).
Vibes has grown into something of a cult film in the intervening years, and I can see why. As a fan of exploitation cinema, I went into this failed, major-studio offering with low expectations…but its easygoing, light tone and obvious ripping off of more popular (and successful) films that came before it, only adds to its exploiter charms. Seeing punky-and-spunky Lauper in her first real film role while still in the light of her superstardom seals the deal and makes this 1 hour and 39 minutes worth a watch for 80s aficionados.