Valentine’s Day, the most holy of all Hallmark holidays, is a lot of pressure. You should express your love for your partner all year round, yet for some reason, this one day in February forces everyone to push their romance into overdrive. But as with everything in this world, perspective is important – because no matter how much you mess up your love life, you can take solace in the fact that you’ll never fail as badly as the hero of the 1989 romantic comedy Chances Are. You might forget to make reservations at a nice restaurant, you might buy the exact type of flowers that your girlfriend just happens to be allergic to. But odds are, you’ve never been a reincarnated person who accidentally becomes romantically intimate with both your wife and daughter from a past life.
Chances Are is the oddest of 1980s romantic comedies. It stars Robert Downey Jr. in one of his earliest leading roles, taking full advantage of what would become his trademark offbeat charm. He plays Alex, a college student who is serendipitously invited to visit the family of a girl with whom he just had a meet-cute (Miranda, played by a peak Mary Stuart Masterson), only to have the memories of his past life as Louis Jeffries, a 1950s-era lawyer, reawakened. This by an unlucky coincidence complicates things, as he suddenly realizes that his girlfriend’s mother Corinne (Cybill Shepherd) is his former wife, making his girlfriend (unfortunately) his daughter. Which we can probably all agree is not ideal.
There’s a big part of Chances Are that’s probably intended to be wacky and endearing. Clearly emboldened by the success of Back to the Future in 1985, which also danced along a razor’s edge of endorsing incest, it goes all in on the concept. But where Back to the Future seemed to acknowledge the ickiness of the situation, Chances Are regards the conceit of a father-daughter love affair at least charming, if not romantic. It can’t stop itself from engineering the most uncomfortable scenarios, where taboos and boundaries you just don’t cross are cheerfully leapt over as though they were chalk lines in a game of hopscotch. A father desperately tries to fend off the sexual advances of his college-aged daughter, all while he’s trying to woo her mother, a relationship that can’t help but evoke serious The Graduate vibes. Then there’s the matter of Ryan O’Neill’s character, the 1950s lawyer’s best friend and a man who has spent his entire adult life just sort of hanging around Corinne, waiting for her to fall in love with him. His presence in the film as a pseudo-father figure for Miranda and ersatz romantic interest for Corinne is utterly bizarre, especially since Corinne seems to have no clue that the man who has lovingly hovered around her and her daughter for twenty years might be, you know, in love with her.
You might expect that Chances Are would use its third act to untangle this web of intrigue and quasi-incest. Because no one would write this completely bananas script without having an idea in their head of how to end it in a way that’s satisfying for all the characters or, at the very least, wouldn’t leave the audience with an anxious feeling in the pit of their stomach. An “is this legal?” anxiety. However, the viewer who finds themselves invested so far should get used to disappointment. Chances Are instead uses this opportunity to unceremoniously switch gears from an eccentric if largely ill-advised romantic comedy to a sudden courtroom drama, where Alex and the gang go into full Murder She Wrote mode and expose a 20-year-old political scandal.
At this point, why not?
Because the solution Chances Are comes up with, the neat little bow they teach you about in screenwriting classes, is to have Alex simply forget about his past life. He’s fully Alex now, although where Louis has gone is anyone’s guess. Has his soul departed for the great beyond, or is he simply lurking somewhere deep within Alex’s subconscious? However the writers try to justify it to themselves, the point is that now Alex is free to pursue Miranda in a sexual way, because he doesn’t remember that he’s the reincarnated version of her father. It certainly doesn’t feel right, but we’ve come this far and we might as well let them have it.
This probably all sounds like criticism of Chances Are, but it’s important to stress in the strongest possible terms that it’s actually a full-throated endorsement. You should watch this movie. Yes, it’s wildly bizarre and can never fully stick the landing on the mental gymnastics required to make its vaguely incestuous sexcapades ok. But it’s worth the price of admission to sit in pure enjoyment of the fact that someone walked into a movie studio with this idea and came out with a $16 million budget. That this was the movie to lure Cybill Shepherd back to film after a nine-year hiatus. Honestly, it’s hard to tell if Chances Are is a cosmic abomination or some sort of miracle.
“Chances Are” is currently streaming on PlutoTV.