One my least favorite well worn movie and TV tropes is the love triangle. You want to lose my interest almost immediately? Have a couple of characters pretzeling themselves into all sorts of humiliating poses for the love of a third person, who rarely seems worth the effort. It’s the lazy writer’s tactic for injecting some extra drama into his or her script, despite it being a situation in which very few people in real life will find themselves. At least when a movie is entirely about a love triangle, as is 1983’s Baby Sister, you can revel in the inevitable melodrama and delicious cheese.
Some fine aged Gouda is served up right at the beginning, with the fantastic Laura Branigan-esque theme song, which goes “When the pressure is rising/and the heat comes down/it gets too sticky/to stick arooooooound/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool dowwwwwwwn/when it gets too hot.”
“Too hot” is a rather literal theme in at least the first half of Baby Sister. Everybody is glistening with sweat, and fans are constantly blowing in the background. It may not be the best time for wayward 19 year-old college dropout Annie Burroughs (Phoebe Cates) to arrive home in L.A., but she does, and asks to stay with her older sister Marsha (Pamela Bellwood), an art gallery owner, and Marsha’s doctor boyfriend, David (Ted Wass). David answers the door shirtless when Annie arrives, and, despite Marsha’s insistence that he’s a swell, stand-up guy, Annie is literally not even inside the house before he’s flirting and making eyes at her. From first meeting he finds her free spirited, tube top to a job interview attitude towards life charming, as opposed to buttoned down workaholic Marsha who, even when it’s 97 degrees out, wears a blazer to work and her hair in a symbolically tight ponytail.
After Annie receives a thorough browbeating from her rich, chilly father (who Annie believes blames her for the accidental death of her mother years earlier), David gives her a job as a receptionist at his clinic. Both of them tragically bereft of friends or any interests beyond work, they begin spending a questionably large amount of time alone together, as David bristles with jealousy around other men. That’s not the only thing David is jealous of–he also resents the time Marsha spends working at her gallery. Let me reiterate: the guy who makes his living as a doctor is resentful of how often his partner is away for her job.
Thank goodness he has Annie, who looks at him with adoration as he lays on the flattery thicker than Jif Extra Chunky, telling her “You’ve got a lot going on behind those pretty brown eyes,” despite the fact that, really, they’ve only just met, and he barely knows her. After David loses a young patient to an overdose, he’s drawn even closer to Annie, and they soon begin an affair. What are you going to do? When faced with tragedy, some people drink, some people withdraw into themselves, David starts banging his teenage receptionist, who also just happens to be his girlfriend’s sister.
Guilt stricken, Annie, despite her feelings for David, doesn’t think they should continue the relationship. David, on the other hand, whose middle name should be “No Pressure,” declares that he no longer loves Marsha and wants to be with Annie instead. The idea that Annie doesn’t seem willing to immediately choose him over her own sister is shocking to David, and he spends much of the second half of the movie sulking about it. There lies the primary issue with Baby Sister–beyond the fact that David and Annie don’t generate enough sparks to light a can of Sterno (they kiss like they both just had gum surgery), they’re clearly together for the wrong reasons. Annie is lonely and has daddy issues, while David is just a big whiny pissbaby who needs his ego stroked (among other things). When it inevitably doesn’t work out for the lovers, the audience breathes a sigh of relief–now maybe Annie can move on to a healthy relationship, with a guy who doesn’t get off on emotionally manipulating impressionable young girls.
The romantic jig is up when David is attacked by a former patient looking for drugs, which, of course, happens on the same night as the gallery opening Marsha has been devoting all her time to for weeks. Three’s Company style wackiness ensues when Annie is mistakenly identified at the hospital as David’s girlfriend, and she and Marsha have it out about the affair right in the waiting room (which is mysteriously empty, despite it being downtown Los Angeles). David shoulders the blame for the whole thing and guilt trips Marsha into forgiving Annie, which is a strange stance to take considering barely a day or two earlier he was expressing surprise and hurt that Annie didn’t want to continue their relationship out of fear of hurting Marsha. That David gets to somehow maintain the moral high ground while still being a dirtbag puts a sour tone on the meant to be uplifting ending, when the saintly Marsha, who never even raises her voice, sends Annie back to college with hugs and forgiveness.
Much like last week’s Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, despite its plot (and that icky title) Baby Sister ends up being far less salacious than it should be. Though you’d expect that Annie would come off as a self-centered maneater who takes what she wants and damn the consequences, really she’s very passive. When she’s not acting as the dewy eyed self-esteem boost that David so desperately craves, she sits in glum silence while he, Marsha, and her father tell her what they think she should do with her life. In their love scenes, Annie just lays in bed looking up at David with no expression, as he perfunctorily smooches her forehead and nose. Even beloved big sister Marsha nags Annie into standing in for her on a date with David, and does curiously little to help mend fences between her and their father. A character that would normally be portrayed as a manipulative hellion is instead weak-willed and fragile, and you find yourself sympathizing with her more than anyone else.
I did mention that there was some tasty cheese to be found here and there, though, and there is, like the hilariously on the nose music cue during David and Annie’s love scene, with a singer wailing “You and me forever/is a dream I’ve always had/and now I hold it in my hands/I hope I never hurt you/or even make you sad/cause I love you/and love can…” We never actually find out what “love can.” There’s also, of course, the message that always comes through loud and clear in movies like this, no matter how classy they want to be, which is “Ladies, you better make sure your man is your number one priority, or else.” Sure, David might be a pile of vanilla pudding sculpted into a vague human shape, but nevertheless, Marsha clearly bears some of the responsibility for his running into the smoking hot arms of Phoebe Cates. She just wasn’t paying enough attention to him, what’s a guy supposed to do?
Original airdate: March 6, 1983
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