'Blame It on Rio': The Most Inappropriate Romantic Comedy of All-Time?

Some movies inspire respect. Others inspire facepalms. Guess where "Blame It on Rio" falls?

"It's been a long while since I've seen 'Blame It on Rio,'" film historian and author John DiLeo said via email, "but I remember it as an especially tasteless and embarrassing example."

Yes, "Blame It on Rio," the 1984 comedy about a 43-year-old man, played by Michael Caine, who carries on a would-be madcap affair with his best friend's teenage daughter (then-newcomer Michelle Johnson), still has it. Thirty years after its release — billed as a romantic comedy, opening in theaters on the coattails of Valentine's Day, on Feb. 17, 1984 — the film still has the power to generate a facepalm, if not the question: What were they thinking?! (To be fair, the film also continues to generate interest for Johnson's topless scenes.)

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But as for the film: Was it really supposed to be funny that Johnson's character pops out her retainer before having sex on the beach with Caine's? Was it really supposed to be funny that Johnson's character calls Caine's "Uncle Matthew," as if he, the character, were a longtime family friend and father figure, which he, the character, actually is? Was it really supposed to be funny that the sex farce concerns a teen and a fortysomething?

Yes. Yes, it was.

"If people weren't uptight about it, it wouldn't be funny," director Stanley Donen once said.

Donen, the legendary filmmaker ("Singin' in the Rain," "Funny Face," and the really, truly grown-up and altogether wonderful relationship comedy, "Two for the Road"), was but one of the first-class talents behind "Blame It on Rio." Writer Larry Gelbart ("Tootsie," TV's "M*A*S*H") was another. Star Caine, the future Oscar-winner, was another. The film's source material, the 1977 French film, "In a Wild Moment," was well regarded, too.

Bruce McNall, the former owner of hockey's Los Angeles Kings, who helped put together the financing on "Rio," and was a producer of the film, remembers Donen coming up with the project. And McNall remembers himself thinking, "It'd be a lot of fun. It'd be great."

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Joseph Bologna, Demi Moore, in one of her early film roles, as Caine's daughter, Valerie Harper, as Caine's estranged wife, and Johnson in the "sex fantasy role," as one critic put it in 1984, rounded out the main cast.

Donen discovered Johnson, as it were, via a photo in a magazine. Johnson was a model at the time. Per most press accounts, she was also just 17 during the movie shoot, a movie shoot that required her to go sans a top on the beach and in love scenes with Caine.

"I don't think anybody realized — I don't think anybody had a clue that she was that age," McNall says today. (He says the production subsequently got Johnson's parents to sign off on the nudity.)

Johnson's youth played to the movie's central theme, as McNall remembers it. "The idea was she was an inappropriate age," he says. "I think the idea was the typical older guy falling for the young girl, which happens constantly, especially in Hollywood."

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Donen maintained the movie was about the inverse. "I never saw the picture from the point of the view of the man running and lusting after the girl," he said in a TV interview with reporter Bobbie Wygant while promoting "Rio." "On the contrary he's constantly rejecting her, and saying, 'No...We can't...We mustn't...Not again...No more...Stop, I won't,' and you can't think of anybody who really means that as a dirty old man." 

Critics begged to differ. Reviews were, on the whole, negative. One called it "offputting...even at times nasty." Another found it "fairly incestuous." Roger Ebert decided the movie "has the mind of a 1940s bongo comedy and the heart of a porno film." (He gave the film one star.)

The R-rated movie didn't rate with audiences, either. It grossed a so-so $18.6 million domestically, and finished the box-office year ranked right below the Eddie Murphy disappointment, "Best Defense."

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"People are taking this far too seriously," Johnson said in a 1984 People profile. "This film has no message. It's pure fantasy."

(In the Wygant interview, Donen essentially dissented, saying "the situation [was] very true. Young girls today seduce a lot of men who are much older than them.")

While other 1980s-era sex comedies have aged well or at least better — chiefly, Blake Edwards' "10" — "Blame It on Rio" hasn't yet won over the critical mass. If anything, the age difference between Caine's character and Johnson's character, sketchily put at 25 years in the film, which would make Johnson's teen of consenting age, has grown. In 2012, Complex pegged "Blame It on Rio" as the sixth-worst romantic comedy of all-time, calling it a "light-hearted [take on the] issue of pedophilia."

McNall says he doesn't know if a Hollywood studio would greenlight "Blame It on Rio" today — but not because of its appropriateness or not, but because of its middle-aged, male-skewing demographics. Perhaps not incidentally, one of the most recent "Blame It on Rio"-esque movies, 2013's "Adore," was a made-outside-of-Hollywood release that was about women, Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, having affairs with each other's respective teen-aged sons. (Critics didn't like that movie, either.)

Looking back on "Rio," which thus far has been the 89-year-old Donen's last big-screen credit, McNall says he's proud of the movie, calling it a "fun, funny movie for that time."

"If I could find a girl like that — great!," McNall says, before laughing. "No, I'm not that bad."