The Southern California teenagers of Clueless were in diapers the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. Cher (Alicia Silverstone), the beautiful and vacuous young heroine, is a preternaturally spoiled Beverly Hills princess who lives in a thick haze of charge accounts and pop-culture references, most of which date back no further than the late ’80s. In the world according to Cher, Hamlet is that guy played by Mel Gibson, making love in a car is ”jeepin’,” and a moment of anxious weirdness is summed up by the confession, ”I’m having a Twin Peaks experience.” Cher strolls through the school halls gossiping on a cellular phone and dresses in skirts so short they’d shame Madonna. To describe her and her friends as children of the consumer-media culture would be to miss the point: They’re children of the children of the consumer-media culture. But if their brains have been fried from birth, you can tell by their outfits and their control-freak eating habits (in this movie, anorexia is practically a style) that they’ve got their priorities straight. What matters to the kids in Clueless is looking good and hanging out with other kids who are looking good.

The director, Amy Heckerling, made 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a comedy that understood the anxieties percolating beneath MTV-era adolescent cool. There are funny bits in Clueless (half the kids seem to be wearing bandages from recent nose jobs), but about all that distinguishes the characters is the fact that they’re processed products of the past, teen-movie zombies with no discernible personality apart from their trendoid obsessions. Cher and her pals may not live in the San Fernando Valley, but in spirit they’re upscale ’90s Valley Girls who worship at the altar of the shopping mall and regard anyone who isn’t a beneficiary of daddy’s charge card as a lower form of insect. Like the catty clique of Heathers, they’re liable to dismiss a fad by saying it’s ”sooo five years ago.” (Isn’t that joke so five years ago?) And like the teen troupers of John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, they all but define themselves by their slang, which takes the form of a kind of bubblegum hip-hop lingo — as in, ”I’m totally buggin’.”

Heckerling wants to stay true to the TV-blitzed narcissism of contemporary kids, to get on their peppy consumerist wavelength. In doing so, she goes too far; she doesn’t allow them to show any temperament. Still, Alicia Silverstone, at least, is wide-awake on screen here in a way that she wasn’t in a dud like The Crush. As an actress, she may be a slightly more talented Brooke Shields, but she has the most ripely precocious baby-doll allure since the nymphet glory days of Tuesday Weld. Silverstone’s lips curl into a teasingly fleshy smirk, and though her eyes are clear and soulful, it’s the brattish superficiality of that smirk that’s the key to her allure. There’s such a gaping discontinuity between her physical beauty and her vacant, gum-snapping personality (she’s at her best shrugging off a nerd’s advances with an eye-rolling ”As if!”) that she’s like a walking advertisement for everything that’s right and wrong with America. Clueless is, first and foremost, an Alicia Silverstone fashion show. Dressed in her plaid schoolgirl minis, she’s a naughty Lolita fantasy. In a red Alaia evening gown, she’s a shapely dazzler, ready to star in Basic Instinct II.

Clueless has a meandering plot that has something to do with Cher doing nice things for people — if they’re wearing the right clothes, that is — and searching for the one, perfect guy to whom she can give her virginity. The mixture of Heathers and Sandra Dee doesn’t quite wash; it’s like biting into a tamale and finding it filled with Marshmallow Fluff. What’s more, the characters are so scrubbed of individuality that it’s never remotely clear which guy Cher should end up with. The skateboarder? The smoothy who looks like George Michael’s kid brother? No, she finally falls for…her stepbrother (Paul Rudd), a twist so bizarre it makes you wonder if Heckerling is warming up for The Soon-Yi Previn Story. Then again, this lover boy is such a bland mensch — to me, he looked like a real Barney — that even the vague whiff of symbolic incest carries no weight. There was more heat passing between Greg and Marcia Brady. C+

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