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Eric D. Snider

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Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.

Eric’s Bad Movies: ‘Joysticks’ (1983)

There was a movie in 1982, called “Porky’s,” that exposed a startling fact long hidden from public view: teenage boys like to see women’s breasts. With that cat out of the bag, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on it by producing more movies in which women’s breasts played central roles. Around the same time, it was discovered that teens were fond of something called “video games.” If you could make a film that tapped into both of these passions, you’d have a hit!

This led to “Joysticks,” an awe-inspiringly stupid 1983 comedy about boobs and video games that would have been a hit were it not for its excruciating, unrelenting badness and sheer unwatchability. Such factors do not always prevent a movie from being successful, of course, but they did in this case. Sometimes the system works, you know?

“Joysticks” immediately reveals what kind of movie it is. Over the opening credits, set to a montage of a jiggly young woman in short shorts enthusiastically playing an arcade game, there is a song containing these lyrics:

Keen eyes, quick hands
Energize my soul again
Gonna see my name in lights
Playing with my joystick
Wiggle left, jerk it right
Zapping everything in sight
Shooting fast, shooting straight

You have to understand, the word “joystick” had only ever been used as a double entendre by every single boy who had ever played a video game, so it was pretty groundbreaking to see it used that way here.

Our hero — well, there are no “heroes” in a tragedy like this, but our main character — is a bow-tied, klutzy, bespectacled teenage nerd. Since he’s a nerd in a lazy comedy that no one put any effort into writing, his name is Eugene. When we meet him, he’s driving to his first day of work at an arcade when he’s interrupted by two hot chicks who say they want to have sex with him in the backseat of their convertible. They prove their sincerity by flashing their boobs at him. Eugene is astonished by his good fortune, but sees no cause for skepticism. Why wouldn’t two random girls accost him at an intersection and demand a spontaneous three-way? The girls steal his pants, take a Polaroid of him in his boxers, and drive off laughing.

As satisfying as it is to witness the humiliation of someone named Eugene, both in film and in life, the scene doesn’t make a lick of sense, and any potential humor to be derived from it is smothered by the desperate, frantic performances. But it is emblematic of the movie as a whole: allegedly comic but in fact exasperating, devoid of wit or cleverness, catering to the fantasies of adolescent males and full-to-burstin’ with naked breasts. Had Eugene actually been playing Pac-Man at the time of the incident, it would have been the entire movie in a nutshell.

The arcade is run by a young fellow named Jeff, a smooth preppy guy who is a friend to all the ladies. The girls with the boobs who played a trick on Eugene are pals of his. So is a rich Valley Girl named Patsy, whose Valley Girl dialect is a shocking reminder that it was once considered acceptable to talk like that. As a native of Southern California, I view these embarrassing portrayals the way the NAACP views “Amos & Andy.”

Other regulars at the Jeff’s arcade, which is owned by his frequently mentioned but never seen grandfather, include a group of punk-rockers led by one King Vidiot (probably not his real name) and a fat, farting slob named Dorfus. (The filmmakers wanted the character’s name to be “John Belushi in ‘Animal House,’” but it was unwieldy, plus the legal department said no.)

The conflict comes, as conflicts often do, in the form of Joe Don Baker. The thick-faced Texan is the most famous person in the movie, playing Mr. Rutter, the suit-wearing stick-in-the-mud father of the Valley Girl. He objects to his daughter hanging out at the arcade and becomes even more vehemently opposed to it when he arrives to pick her up one day at the very moment that Jeff is helping Eugene get revenge on the boob girls by taking a Polaroid picture of them in a compromised position. Specifically, the boob girls are topless again (they are rarely not topless), and tricked into running out onto the arcade floor in front of everybody, including Mr. Rutter.

There are a lot of boobs in this movie. OK, actually, there are only four. But they keep showing up, the same four, over and over again, like the backgrounds in a “Yogi Bear” cartoon.

Mean ol’ Mr. Rutter wants to shut down the arcade because it’s corrupting the community’s children, and because he’s a big, stupid jerk and the villain of the movie. Boo for crusty adults who don’t like video games!! Now, you could argue that a place where teenage girls are tricked into baring their breasts to other teenagers is indeed a place in need of tighter regulations, but never mind that. The important thing is that Rutter is the bad guy and BOO FOR HIM.

Rutter has two bumbling nephews who serve as his henchmen whom he sends in “undercover” to learn about the inner workings of the arcade. It’s not clear what Rutter hopes to learn by this; the arcade is open to the public and has a fairly straightforward business model of “people put quarters into our machines and then we put those quarters into our bank account.” Nor is it clear why one of the nephews disguises himself as a girl for the fact-finding mission, other than that this is the kind of movie (dumb) made by the kind of people (dumb) who think that’s automatically funny, regardless of whether it makes sense.

At any rate, the cretinous nephews hatch a scheme to come back with a truck later that night, break into the place, and steal all the games. They discuss this plan within earshot of Eugene, who tells Jeff, who plans a counter-plan that will thwart their plan. (Tip for criminals: do not openly discuss your plan to rob a business while standing in the business during business hours.) Jeff’s counter-plan does not involve simply calling the police, because that would be too easy and rational and effective.

Meanwhile, Eugene and Dorfus break into Rutter’s house to find some dirt on him. He’s gone, but his wife is sound asleep in their second-story bedroom, whose window is the one the boys choose to enter — not a ground-floor window, which would be easier, because everything is stupid and I hate this movie. In a genuinely unbearable sequence of terrible comic ideas and worse execution, the sleeping Mrs. Rutter stretches her arm out and happens to touch Eugene’s belt buckle, whereupon Dorfus pushes him onto the bed and encourages him to have sex with Mrs. Rutter, who I hasten to add is still asleep. Eugene is flustered and bedeviled; Mrs. Rutter is in dreamland but starts “oohing” and “aahing” because she semi-consciously thinks her husband is in bed with her; and Dorfus hides in the bathroom when the actual Mr. Rutter shows up. Then Dorfus farts loudy, and Rutter — who does not see that Eugene is in bed with his wife — blames his wife.

Every aspect of this scene has been designed to inflict maximum pain. No one has ever watched it all the way through more than once without suffering massive internal hemorrhaging. If aliens should ever see this sequence, they will destroy the entire human race, and they will be right to do so.

There’s a lot of tomfoolery and monkeyshines in between, but eventually we come to the movie’s climax, in which everything is to be decided by a head-to-head video game competition. If Rutter’s side wins, the arcade closes. If Jeff’s side wins, the arcade stays open and Rutter can go suck it. Rutter’s player is King Vidiot the punk kid, who has joined forces with him out of hatred for Jeff, while Jeff and the arcade are represented by Dorfus. But Rutter’s nephews kidnap Dorfus, forcing Jeff to play the game himself, which he doesn’t usually do, but he does it, and he wins, and the movie ends with Eugene going to a motel to have sex with Rutter’s wife, and I am not making that up.

Discussion questions:

- Have you ever spent time in an arcade operated by teenagers at which hot chicks were occasionally topless? Why do you think such businesses are so rare?

- Of the 30 or so bad movies that Joe Don Baker has appeared in, which is the worst? Remember, he was in “Congo” AND “Leonard Part 6.”

- With a nerd named Eugene and a slob named Dorfus, why do you think “Joysticks” didn’t also have a fat girl named Bertha, a stripper named Bambi, and a Russian foreign exchange student named Ivan?

- If you had two moronic nephews willing to do your bidding, what would you have them do for you? Probably something more important than serve as your lieutenants in a feud against an arcade, right?


Categories: Columns

Tags: Joysticks