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Clueless

tn_clueless

RELEASE DATE: July 7
RELEASE DATE: July 19

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 [1997]) 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.

mp_cluelessOne 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.

post-script:

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.
This entry was posted on Monday, July 20th, 2015 at 7:38 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Clueless”

  1. I don’t really have a nostalgic connection with it. I didn’t see the movie when it came out, but watched a few episodes of the TV show once in a while, tolerating it more than really liking it, but I had a minor celebrity crush on Rachel Blanchard. It was difficult for me to figure out if the fashion, which was way more over the top in the TV show than it was in the movie, was supposed to be cool and I simply didn’t get it or looked purposely shitty and was meant to be a parody.

    When I finally saw the movie a few years ago, I was mildly surprised how watchable it was and how likeable the characters were. To me, it was the Anti-PROJECT X (pretty much my most hated movie of the decade and in the top 3 of most hated movies ever, thanks to the horrible asshole protagonists, who do horrible asshole things and get rewarded for it in the end.). All in all today’s teen comedies seem to be more about unlikeable assholes that it was the case in the 80s and 90s. Can you imagine CLUELESS or BILL & TED starring the shit roosters of PROJECT X, SUPERBAD or HIGH SCHOOL (Which is my #2 most hated movie of the decade so far.)? The 90s were all about being “extreme” and “edgy”, but in terms of teen comedy characters, the present seems to be more “extreme” and “edgy”, to the point of “FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKERS! WHO THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA TO MAKE YOU THE PROTAGONISTS OF THE MOVIE!?”

    And man, the cell phone thing. I recently had a we-are-getting-old conversation with my sister (we are both in our 30s), where this came up. Remember when people were actually emberassed when their phone rang in a public place? They would maybe apologize and go outside to take the call, while everybody would laugh at them? *sigh* I’m getting old…

  2. I rewatched this one recently with my wife, and I agree it has aged well. I also agree that watching this movie for the first time as an adult I appreciated it more then I ever did when it first came out and I was a teenager. It is a smart and funny coming of age film that is genuinely touching without being sappy.

  3. One of the best Austen adaptations. It’s definitely of it’s time, but it’s not the worse for wear because of it (more like a period piece.) HEATHERS was awesome, but it’s definitely got that 80s darkness to it. Clueless is just a nice, clever movie with great casting and performances.

  4. I haven’t seen it as an adult but I’ll take that into consideration since so many of you guys are saying it’s an even better watch 20 years later or whatever.

    I remember being surprised with it as a 12 year old. I thought it was going to be a BABYSITTERS CLUB type of thing and only watched it with my female cousins cause I didn’t want to sit through BATMAN FOREVER again at the flicks.

  5. AnimalRamirez1976

    July 20th, 2015 at 10:24 am

    This movie entered the octogon with Can’t Hardly Wait and won a unanimous decision as the surprisingly likeable teen comedy of the 90s.

  6. Yeah, I like this one. I liked it when I first saw it and have liked it every time since, which has been quite a few. It’s one of those that is still quoted by my group of friends. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that I said, “I’m outty,” just last night.

  7. Just curious but are you planning to cover that other Dan Hedaya movie from that season, THE USUAL SUSPECTS?

  8. grimgrinningchris

    July 20th, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    I like Clueless… but I LOVE Can’t Hardly Wait. It shamelessly aped Hughes’s lighter fare, but it did it so well.

    I have exactly one problem with Clueless and that is that nobody, ever ever, in the history of the world- has entered a 12 step program for smoking too much weed.

    I also always liked that it was the seemingly male, too-cool-for-school college hipster that was defending “Marky Mark” and not the teenage girl who would have, especially at the time, been much more susceptible to his… charms.

    I have lots of thoughts on this movie, but those are the two that always pop into my head first.

    “I left my Cranberries CD on the quad!” Has a more 90s line ever been spoken?

    Oh and I love Jeremy Sisto… he did the best non Kevin Conrad animated Batman voice when he did it for New Frontiers.

  9. The Original Paul

    July 20th, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    I have little to add to what Vern’s written other than to say that this is a good-natured likeable movie with none of the mean-spiritedness of some of its contemporaries.

    It’s been a while since I saw LOSER but I remember it being the exact opposite of that.

    I disagree about BLAST FROM THE PAST not holding up though. I have a lot of love for that movie.

  10. Speaking of fun, perky comedies with a certain charm which I enjoy more than I should admit, BRING IT ON is a good one. A bikini car wash always elevates a comedy (DODGEBALL with it’s threat of male sodomy doesn’t apply, as funny as that scene is), especially when it’s Kirsten Dunst in said bikini. “I’m sexy, I’m cute, I’m popular to boot!”

    Sigh…

  11. Great review, totally agree. I will never hesitate to go on about the comedic brilliance of this movie. I love it as much as a cakeboy loves cake and/or boys.

  12. This was one of my sister’s favorite movies growing up, so I would say I’ve seen it at least five times all the way through and probably something ridiculous like 20 times just in bits and pieces (like, I think, most kids with VCRs, we played the movies we liked over and over and over). I like it enough that I never thought to resent it, even after that overexposure.

    Re: the review, though, I apologize in advance but I’m gonna jump on this part:

    “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.”

    So what are your thoughts on Thief (1981)? I saw on twitter that you watched it (and liked the blu-ray transfer and the Tangerine Dream score). Are you holding back on a full review for some particular occasion, or do you just not have enough to say about it to justify one?

  13. So, did CLUELESS invent zettai ryōiki?

  14. The Original Paul

    July 21st, 2015 at 10:35 am

    JTS –

    “like, I think, most kids with VCRs, we played the movies we liked over and over and over.”

    Yeah… like most kids… eh-hem… right.

    Of course we all grow out of that phase, right?

    ***Goes to watch T2 for the twentieth time…***

  15. Does CAN’T HARDLY WAIT hold up then? I watched it when I was 17 (2004, by which point it was already kind of dated) and really enjoyed it, but I kind of assumed because grown-ups didn’t go for it a la CLUELESS it probably wasn’t really that great. Then again, I didn’t really care for teen movies that much even as a teen, so that I liked it back then might have been a good sign. Didn’t enjoy BRING IT ON beyond its, er, surface pleasures personally, and I regard CLUELESS’s sister in 1995ness, EMPIRE RECORDS, as one of my least pleasurable movie watching experiences, along with the similarly mopey REALITY BITES. MEAN GIRLS was entertaining, but I always thought it had nothing on CLUELESS.

  16. Pacman I was also a teen that really didn’t care about teen movies. At least the ones from my generation anyway cause I did grow up watching and loving HEATHERS and I also really got into DAZED AND CONFUSED & FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH once I turned 13. I watched CAN’T HARDLY WAIT at a free radio station screening about 3 months before it officially came out. I remember enjoying it well enough and I was the perfect age for it (14 years old) but tbh I had even forgotten the movie existed until I read the comments in this review.

    Never saw BRING IT ON and only remember EMPIRE RECORDS because some dude who worked at the greatest job I ever had (TOWER RECORDS in Lincoln Square as seen in LL Cool J’s I NEED LOVE video) wrote it and apparently it was loosely based on his experiences at TOWER. Suffice it to say I didn’t see the whole thing but what I saw wasn’t reflective of my experiences at TOWER at all (which included a conversation about Hitchcock with a Mr. Steven Spielberg and Danny DeVito busting my chops when he caught me and a co-worker staring at a fine piece of ass in front of us at the TOWER cafe).

  17. I meant to include in the post-script that Stacey Dash is now primarily known for disappointing people by being politically conservative and for being on the cover of both issues of Smooth Magazine in which my books were reviewed.

  18. I guess no one else was weirded out by Cher falling in love with her stepbrother? I know there’s technically no blood relation, but most children of blended families agree you don’t go there with your step siblings. It’s certainly not creepy in the movie, just an odd oversight that maybe is not even an issue 20 years later.

    I too was impressed how well this holds up. Even more now that I live in LA and know all the landmarks. 20 minute drive my ass!

  19. Two of our best-selling issues. I credit the Vern Factor.

  20. Shit, my identity’s been burned. Time to execute Ghost Protocol.

  21. You can run, but you can’t hide!

  22. Grimgrinningchris- I met several cannabis addicts at NA. There was even a small Marijuana Anonymous group with their own meetings.

    Addiction is more about the psychology of the individual than the inherent harmfulness of the chemical.

  23. Vern, I’m not saying you should change anything or anything, but I wish I could ‘like’ comments on here, coz I’d ‘like’ yours. That’s terrible and hilarious. Also, I’m listening to Harold Faltermeyer’s theme from KUFFS as I type this. Just thought you’d appreciate that.

  24. I forgot to include this with the review:

    Snoop Dogg - Beautiful ft. Pharrell Williams

    Music video by Snoop Dogg performing Beautiful ft. Pharrell Williams. (C) 2003 Priority Records, LLC

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