“Oh Marty, I almost forgot – Jennifer Parker called.“
– Linda McFly
“Um, which one?“
There’s always been one major disconnect with me in regards to the Back to the Future trilogy. Despite the fact that I will consistently pick apart how the time travel doesn’t really work in II, despite how I feel like the ending to III seems to be a bit out of sync with everything established tonally and character-wise up to that point, and despite the fact that Verne has to pee bad enough to point it out onscreen, the biggest glaring moment in the entire franchise for me is the obvious transformation from Claudia Wells to Elizabeth Shue from the first to the second film.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the Back to the Future trilogy. The first one is practically perfect, and even the sequels are fun and enjoyable despite their flaws. And don’t think I harbour any hate for Elizabeth Shue, either. She’s been brilliant as every other character I’ve seen her portray. The teenager in me still has a crush on her as Ali in The Karate Kid, and she kicked all sorts of ass as the Sheriff in the recent remake of Piranha.
But she can’t hold a candle to First Jennifer.
First, let me get the obvious out of the way first – her appearance. And I refer to one overly-conspicuous detail in particular – Somehow, Jennifer Parker goes from being a brunette to a dirty blonde in the four-year blink of an eye. You know, it’s really not that hard to dye blonde hair darker so it can keep with continuity. I mean, isn’t there generally a person in charge of film continuity so that obvious changes like that don’t happen? And if Miss Shue wasn’t willing to re-hue her coif, couldn’t casting have gone with someone else? Surely, she wasn’t the only actress that tested for the role. Based on what little screen time she has in both sequels, I have a hard time believing that she tested better than anyone else. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The meat of this blog centers around the most important aspect of why this change was a serious misstep – character. Not only does Jennifer Parker’s top pick a new Crayola tone, but her character suffers a major personality shift.
In the first Back to the Future, we are introduced to the love of Marty’s life pretty early in the film. She’s there to meet him at the entrance of the school. From the get-go it’s established that she’s pretty level-headed and even seems to be a solid source of stability for the
time traveler. She tries to keep him out of trouble when he arrives late for school. She’s a major source of support when he tries out for the Battle of the Bands, and reassures him when The Pinheads are “too darn loud” – giving him the constant push he needs when he starts to sound like his old man. She even gently chastises him when he admits that his mom has no clue about their date at the lake. First Jennifer is clearly a strong female with incredible charisma.
By the end of the film, when faced with the fact that a DeLorean just bamfed into the McFly driveway, First Jennifer appears to take it in stride – at least, as well as she can considering that her boyfriends significantly-older best friend just popped out wearing some pretty outlandish clothes and rummaging through the family garbage for “fuel”. Still, from the expressions on her face, we can see that internally she’s trying to maintain a level head, processing what her senses just assaulted her with. But at no point does it look like she’s wigging out. her demeanor the entire time is more like “Is this for real?”
Now, let’s jump back into the exact same scene with Second Jennifer. In Back to the Future II, we start the film identically to how the first one concluded. Marty opens the garage door to find the 4×4 he was wishing for during the day of the Twin Pines Mall sitting right in front of him – all waxed up and ready for tonight. A sight for sore eyes strikes a pose in the entrance and delivers a line we’ve heard before. Okay, not bad so far. Head-pelage notwithstanding, Shue seems to be up to the task.
Until our couple is reintroduced to re-entry.
Shue plays this scene entirely different. From the moment the stainless steel construction plows into the trashcans, her face clearly shows that she’s dumbfounded. Her mannerisms and reactions are played completely out of whack to what First Jennifer displayed in the previous film. The change is subtle, but Second Jennifer seems just kinda numb to everything going on around her, while Marty continues to actually react to Doc’s return. Then, when the news of her offspring is delivered to her by this crazy, wild-eyed scientist, her eyes grow wide in shock and… is that horror? Looks like horror. This difference in character redefines how Second Jennifer will be for the rest of the next two films – overexcitable, rash, unable to think clearly in a pinch, and I think mildly retarded.
Here’s a YouTube clip with a comparison of the two scenes. It’s subtle, but the difference is there.
For the next four hours of time travelling fun, we get subjected to snippets of over-excitable questions, comedic ham-acting to the discovery that her future went down the toilet, and a final inquery delivered like it was from a five year old. Not quite the delivery I would have expected if the Jennifer who gladly suffered a tardy note for her boyfriend would have survived in what has to be an alternate timeline. First Jennifer would have handled herself much better in the situations she found herself in. Second Jennifer plays too much like a damsel in distress – a buffoon who single-handedly eradicates all of the strength her character was imbued with from the first film.
This brings me back to my original question: why Shue? She’s a decent enough actress, but was a terrible fit for the part. Did she do any type of preparation, like check out how the character was portrayed in the first film, or did she just wing it based off the scripts themselves? And what about casting? Did they actually thing her screen test was the best one? Or did they intentionally rewrite the character knowing that she wouldn’t feature much in the sequels and needed her simply as reaction-fodder?
Regardless of the answers, I still enjoy the Back to the Future sequels. Though I find myself not enjoying them nearly as much as I used to. The glaring difference in casting seems to stand out to me more now than it did when I was growing up. Thank the Flux Capacitor that Miss Parker’s screen time is as small as it is, otherwise you would probably find me at the bottom of
Shonash Clayton Eastwood Ravine.
And somewhere, Eric Stoltz is probably laughing his ass off about all this.