I wasn’t intending to include CLUELESS in my Summer of ’95 retrospective, since I mainly like to look at “blockbuster” type movies. And I feel very familiar with it. I saw it a long time ago and then I’ll watch parts of it on cable now and then. But I think Mr. Majestyk or somebody said he was hoping I would do it and you know I’m like a DJ, I try to read the audience and move the crowd and what not.
And man, when you sit down and watch it from beginning to end for the first time in a while, CLUELESS really holds up. It’s a funny, unique movie, one that’s simultaneously very ’90s in attitude, music and cultural references, and timeless because of its stylishly heightened (I hope) depiction of the world of Los Angeles rich kids. And you know what, nothing against James Acheson, who won a costume design Oscar for RESTORATION that year, but do you think he ever sent flowers to Mona May, who did this shit? I mean come on. It’s brilliant. Apparently she got her start working with Julie Brown on MTV (not Downtown, the funny one who plays the gym teacher here).
Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, the spoiled daughter of an angry widower lawyer (Dan Hedaya, ALIEN RESURRECTION). She and Stacey Dash as her best friend Dionne (they were “both named after famous singers of the past who now do infomercials”) in some ways fit the stereotype of Beverly Hills teen girls: they obsess over expensive name brand clothes and their own popularity, they think less about school and their futures than about boys and parties (though they don’t seem very interested in drinking and look down on anything more than occasional drug use). They are superficial, but they’re generally well-meaning, nice people. Then one day, inspired by ex stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd, GEN-X COPS 2: METAL MAYHEM)’s comment about Marky Mark* attending a tree-planting ceremony, Cher decides to try using her popularity for good.
*This was before FEAR, let alone BOOGIE NIGHTS, so nobody called him Mark Wahlberg, not even his parents.
To that end, Cher decides to take “adorably clueless” new transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy, DRIVE ) under her wing to turn her from overall-wearing stoner to popular kid. There is a makeover and matchmaking involved. Meanwhile, Cher falls for a high school boy for the first time.
That plot summary sounds kinda dumb, and it was hard to write, because it’s not a good description of the movie. It doesn’t really feel so much about the story (which is an update of Jane Austen’s Emma) as about all these characters, the things they say, the way they talk. Cher narrates in a deadpan mix of wit and airheadedness. What can you say about someone who, when preparing for a date, gets together with her friend to “design a lighting concept”? Does that sound dumb or smart? I guess both.
One thing I never thought about until watching it this time: there’s no antagonist. I mean, HEATHERS is more my teen movie world view. It shows that the whole system is sick. The popular kids are horrible to everybody else, and they’re rewarded for it. The adults, even the well meaning ones, are completely clueless, and not adorably so. The kids that are smart enough to see what’s going on might go too far in exacting revenge. That was how the world looked to me when I was that age, it’s not like most of these teen movies where there’s one snotty girl that’s the bad guy, or all adults are the bad guys, and all kids get along, or there’s just a couple mean jocks but everybody else is innocent. That always feels like bullshit.
But CLUELESS is kinda nice because it’s not any of those, it’s a cruelty-free high school. There’s Amber (Elisa Donovan, THE DOG WHO SAVED EASTER), who’s bitchy to Cher, but she doesn’t seem to be an actual enemy, and you gotta respect her for having the craziest fashion of any of them. There’s Elton (Jeremy Sisto, THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT), who turns into a dick with potential date rapist vibes when Cher spurns his advances, but the conflict ends there, and nobody gets hurt. Everybody is likable, even Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn, THE METEOR MAN), who’s supposed to be the hard-ass teacher but doesn’t seem bad; the dumb stoner Travis Birkenstock (Breckin Meyer, GARFIELD), who makes an acceptance speech when he finds out he had the most tardies in the class; and Dionne’s macho boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison), who defends calling her “woman” by explaining that “street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.” Just like the girls in the movie, the boys can be a mix of surprisingly clever and total bonehead.
In so many ways CLUELESS is an anomaly. Writer-director Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH) was not known to be on a hot streak, since her previous movie was five years earlier, and was LOOK WHO’S TALKING TOO. Out of nowhere she smashes this one out of the park, and then goes back to being mostly ignored. Meanwhile, Silverstone is so absolutely perfect in this role that it seems like it’s been kind of a curse for her. She’s never found another one that fit her so well. But it’s not like it was some easy job where she just acts like herself. She has excellent comic timing, runs the gamut from humorously dumb to putting people in their place, she throws bratty tantrums and gets giggly-hopping-up-and-down-little-girl-excited and has to make both of those things kind of endearing.
I guess that’s the main miracle of CLUELESS – it’s about rich, materialistic kids, the type of people we normally hate automatically – but we like them. Maybe it’s because they’re such a fantastical version of rich kids in the way they talk and dress and everything that it doesn’t seem aspirational. You don’t feel like your’e supposed to wish your life was like Cher’s. You’re just supposed to accept her and laugh with her.
One thing that marks this as a 1995 movie is the list of actors who are referenced as hunks. Cher is said to be “saving herself for Luke Perry,” because he was on his fifth season of 90210 at that time. She refers to a boy as “kind of a Baldwin,” because Alec and William were both considered very handsome then. She also knows about Hamlet because she’s very fond of Mel Gibson movies. You know, Mel Gibson who was in BRAVEHEART, CASPER and POCAHONTAS that summer. He was still considered dreamy, did not yet have the reputation for extreme violence in his movies, let alone the other stuff. There’s also a suggestion of going to see “the new Christian Slater,” which at that time would’ve had to be MURDER IN THE FIRST I guess.
Cher’s world view is represented by basic cable. Normally she likes to watch Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead. But when she wants to be taken seriously she watches CNN. She does not go as far as listening to Radiohead, the “whiny” music that Josh, being in college, enjoys.
Her friend Christian (Justin Walker), who she thinks she’s dating, has more old school touchstones. He has “a thing for Tony Curtis.” He listens to Billie Holiday. He’s seen reading Junky by William S. Burroughs. He drives a 1954 Nash Metropolitan convertible. Cher’s dad thinks he wants to be in the Rat Pack. He needs to know if his jacket makes him look more James Dean or Jason Priestley, and I assume he’s hoping for the former. Many of his interests do fit a certain stereotype of a gay man, but not the usual derogatory kind.
This brings up another part of the movie’s lack of meanness. When Cher finds out Christian is gay, the guys all knew this and don’t seem to have had a problem with it. Murray does call him a “cake boy,” whatever that means, but didn’t ever question Cher and Dionne hanging out with him. Christian is never treated as an outcast, never has to defend himself, is allowed to be cocky as a personality trait and not a defense mechanism. That was pretty progressive in 1995.
I guess maybe the meanest person in the movie is Cher’s dad, but everybody just figures he’s harmless. For me, Hedaya gets the biggest laughs. He’s always grouchy and has no qualms about terrifying Cher’s friends. When she introduces him to Tai he says “GET OUT OF MY CHAIR!” When she leaves on a date with Christian he says “Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.”
There’s a joke where Cher and Dion are having a phone conversation and suddenly they run into each other, hang up their phones and continue the conversation without missing a beat. It’s still funny, but you forget how part of the joke back then was kids having cell phones at all. That wasn’t as common back then. I remember one guy at work had one and we all made fun of him for it. A high school kid would have to be pretty spoiled, rich and self-important to have one.
Another part I love in this movie is when Dionne is practicing driving and accidentally merges onto the freeway. They go one exit screaming like they’re being chased by an ax maniac. This is a true part of learning to drive that I don’t think I’ve ever seen referenced in another movie. And Cher treats it like a near-death experience that changes her outlook on life.
CLUELESS is one of those rare movies that’s about teens but seems really more designed to appreciate as an older person. So there’s nothing to be ashamed of here. I’m sure it’s not news to most of you, but this is a good one.
In September of the following year, ABC debuted a Clueless TV series, which continued into a second and third season on UPN. Cher was played by Rachel Blanchard, Josh was played by David Lascher, but weirdly alot of the supporting roles were the same actors from the movie: Stacey Dash as Dionne, Donald Faison as Murray, Elisa Donovan as Amber, Wallace Shawn as Mr. Hall, Twink Caplan as Ms. Geist. Sean Holland, who had a small part as one of Murray’s friends, played a different character, and Julie Brown played a coach again, but with a different name. Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy and Breckin Meyer all made guest appearances as new characters. Amy Heckerling directed four episodes, including the pilot. I couldn’t tell you if the show was any good, but I’m impressed how connected it was to the movie version. That’s unusual.
Heckerling wrote and directed three more comedies: LOSER (2000) starring Jason Biggs (and featuring Caplan), I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN starring Michelle Pfeiffer (but also Rudd and Dash), and VAMPS (2012), which reunited her with Silverstone (as well as Shawn). I haven’t heard good things, but maybe I should give it a shot. Like so many movie directors, she has moved into television, including an episode of Jeremy Sisto’s show Suburgatory.
Silverstone became a major movie star for the rest of the ’90s, but movies like TRUE CRIME (non-Clint Eastwood version), THE BABYSITTER, BATMAN AND ROBIN, EXCESS BAGGAGE and BLAST FROM THE PAST were not good enough to stand the test of the time like CLUELESS. Although one of them was bad enough.
Of the main stars, obviously Rudd has had the biggest career, and gone on to become a beloved comedy star, not just the straight man.
Murphy also did well for herself, though she was slumming in the Asylum movie MEGAFAULT shortly before her tragic death in 2009. In between various romantic comedies she managed to co-star in 8 MILE and work with George Miller on the first HAPPY FEET (though her husband blamed her replacement on the second one for some of the troubles in the end of her life). In SIN CITY she delivered a classic line reading of “Dwight, you fool. You damn fool.” Of the cast members she is the only to have a trashy made-for-cable movie about her life.
Faison has become best known from the TV show Scrubs, which he was on for ten years.
Meyer did many movies, including ROAD TRIP and the GARFIELDs, before being a writer and voice actor on the long-running sketch comedy cartoon Robot Chicken. In fact he got his start doing voices for animation as a kid. His first IMDb credit is as “Spud” on Potato Head Kids, and later he infamously dubbed Roberto Benigni’s voice for the American release of his live action PINOCCHIO.
Cinematographer Bill Pope had done several movies already, including DARKMAN and ARMY OF DARKNESS. His next movie after this was BOUND with the Wachowskis, leading into him being the bad motherfucker who shot THE MATRIX.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.