High School Confident: Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
From Frankie and Annette’s beach frolics to Pauly Shore’s Valley-dude antics and beyond, the teen comedy has always been one of Hollywood’s more disreputable genres. The movies make money, but, for the most part justifiably, they get no respect. Many of the artisans who toil in the field are either cranky hacks or new talents who abandon it as soon as they can. It’s ironic, then, that after making such unremarkable films as Johnny Dangerously and the first two Look Who’s Talking installments, director Amy Heckerling signals her artistic rebirth with the just-out-on-video Clueless, with which she returns to the genre she nearly redefined more than a decade ago.
Her debut feature, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, MCA/Universal, R, $14.95), was a hit teen comedy that was far from the generic ideal. That is, it was actually good. Very good. Funny, moving, compassionate, and smart, it struck a chord both with teen audiences tired of being pandered to and adults who could handle its frank, nonjudgmental observations. It’s amusing to recall that in its theatrical release, Fast Times was almost as controversial as last summer’s dire Kids, a dark vision of sex-crazy louts that many viewed as the antithesis of the cheery Clueless. Fast Times‘ friendly feel aside, it is relentless in its honesty about teen sexuality. While the movie (written by Cameron Crowe) explores all the strata of high school society, from jocks to stoners to straight arrows (all perfectly cast—remember Sean Penn’s ineffable Jeff Spicoli?), its two ostensible lead characters are Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a naif awkward in matters sexual, and Linda (Phoebe Cates), a pretend know-it-all in same. Linda steers Stacy away from the nice-guy nerd who asks her out, encouraging her to date more ”sophisticated” college guys. Her lessons twist Stacy up in a knot of confusion, with traumatic results.
But Heckerling insists on keeping her characters strong—they may screw up, but they eventually regain their bearings. Heckerling’s empathy and willingness to treat her subjects as real people make Fast Times’ all’s-well-that-ends-well coda not only convincing but moderately inspiring. While the movie hardly seems dated today, it does conjure a peculiar nostalgia—those were the days when most of us thought the worst result of unprotected teen sex was an unwanted pregnancy. How long ago that seems.
Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Heckerling’s Clueless, which centers on the makeover and matchmaking efforts of perky, self-adoring Cher (Alicia Silverstone), might have been a follow-up report to Fast Times. But while the newer movie shares some plot points and object lessons with the earlier one, Clueless is a fizzier concoction, with a consistently light comic tone that sometimes flirts with parody.
Here, a Beverly Hills high school stands in for Austen’s Highbury social whirl, and in keeping with Heckerling’s hiply optimistic worldview, the Hills of Clueless are Pop-art bright—even the beverage dispensers in the school cafeteria have a neon glow, an incandescence that projects nicely on video. Cajoling her way to an improved report card, transforming a new student from grunge girl to babe, oblivious to any and all issues outside of her little circle, Silverstone’s Cher almost convinces us that her self-love is earned. (While Silverstone has until now been the master of precisely two facial expressions — the come-hither stare and the petulant pout — here her perfectly modulated, souffle-airy performance renders her utterly irresistible.)
But Cher’s got something missing. It’s not that she’s stupid, not at all—it’s just that her mind moves even faster, and more recklessly, than her motor mouth. She’s far too eager to hook the wrong people up (herself included), and her brain’s hell-bent on making the wrong connections; inspired by a recent bout of vocabulary building, she misidentifies Stanley Kubrick’s gladiator movie as Sporadicus. Character development this multileveled is virtually absent from Hollywood films these days—how ironic that it should turn up in what has been referred to as an ”MTV movie.”
As with Fast Times, things go wrong for our heroine—but in a far less harrowing fashion. The clever but never cloying Clueless honors Shakespeare’s comedies almost as much as it does Austen’s in its conviction that a work aiming to deliver an uplifting message should provide uplift throughout, not just at the punchline. Clueless‘ moral is, good things come to people who do good for the right — that is, for selfless — reasons. I’m not so sure that’s true anymore, but the point is worth debating, and it’s a sweet one. Clever and sweet—would that such a combination could be found in today’s so-called adult comedies. Both movies: A-