[Deep Focus]

CLUELESS


Written and Directed by Amy Heckerling
Starring Alicia Silverstone.
USA, 1995

GRADE: B+


You know what people remember about Fast Times at Ridgemont High? They remember Sean Penn -- playing stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (and basically inventing Bill and Ted, Wayne's World, and, hell, Dumb & Dumber) -- having a pizza delivered to Mr. Hand's classroom. They might remember a funny bit involving fellatio and a banana, and they almost certainly remember Judge Reinhold jerking off in the bathroom over Phoebe Cates. (This review has been rated PG-13, and may be in violation of the Communications Decency Act. Consult your local Congressperson.)

But what always gets me about that movie is its innate goodheartedness. Fast Times is funny, but it has an urgency to it, a sense of purpose that comes with being basically the only high school comedy of its time to treat its subjects with honesty and respect. You can argue that the film's spirit derives as much from the sensitivity of writer Cameron Crowe (who went on to direct Singles) or the cast of dedicated performers -- Penn, Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whittaker -- as anything, but I've always been rooting for the director, Amy Heckerling, to concoct a worthy followup.

And it's been a long wait. After some 13 years marking time with the likes of National Lampoon's European Vacation, Johnny Dangerously, and a couple of Look Who's Talking movies, Heckerling has gone back to high school and fashioned another winner. Where Fast Times was an occasionally painful coming-of-age drama, Heckerling’s Clueless is a bright, savvy fairy tale about well-off high school girls with names like Cher, Tai, and Dionne. The girls are interested in the boys, who are largely relegated to a turnabout status as objects of desire -- they’re cute but baffled, mere cogs in the schemes of the girls they want.

Heckerling’s script is a free adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, so naturally, protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone) makes a series of bad decisions that are revealed as such in due time, when she learns important lessons about life and love that, presumably, pull her at least partway out of her classist, materialist worldview. Silverstone, who had previously been known as "that girl from the Aerosmith videos," is better than I would have imagined. While it remains to be seen whether she’s got a serious career in her, she’s more endearing than repellent as the privileged young queen of Beverly Hills, and that counts for a lot.

Silverstone’s good looks and Austen’s obvious cachet aside, the real hook for Clueless is the language, which is sort of a modified Valley Girl dialect that’s occasionally hysterical, but usually non-intrusive -- consider these linguistic permutations the catchy flip side to A Clockwork Orange, if you like. From the brightly lit California setting to the sunny dispositions of just about everyone involved (including Wallace Shawn as a matchmade high school teacher), Clueless is a candy-colored comedy and an able chaser for any heavy cinematic experiences that have dogged you lately. In fact, I enjoyed Clueless so much that I want to write Heckerling and Silverstone a personal thank-you note. In a year where Larry Clark’s Kids felt like something I was sentenced to, Clueless is a last-minute reprieve.


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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer
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