Clueless – 1995

Writer and Director Amy Heckerling
Starring Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, Dan Hedaya, Jeremy Sisto, Wallace Shawn
Screenplay based on Emma by Jane Austen

It’s remarkable how fresh and vibrant Amy Heckerling’s Clueless felt while I watched it with my wife and my oldest daughter last night. The jokes were still funny, the fashion was beautifully dated and the acting is like a self-aware Disney show without the dumb father figure. Alicia Silverstone was never going to be a hotter commodity. Apparently, my memory of the film’s success was slightly exaggerated due to my enjoyment of the work. Considered a sleeper hit the year it was released, the critical esteem only increased with time.

A modern retelling of the classic Jane Austen book, Emma, the story revolves around Cher Horowitz (Silverstone), the attractive, popular and extremely wealthy daughter of lawyer Mel (Hedaya) as she works as cupid’s arrow in the lives of those around her. She is alternately vapid and brilliant, materialistic and maternalistic, oblivious and remarkably aware. When challenged by her step brother Josh (Rudd) to do something completely altruistic, it fits within the framework of hers and her best friend Dionne’s (Dash) of using their popularity for a “cause” beyond raising the “first offer” of her report card to something her father can accept.

Their project, Tai (a very awkward Murphy) takes a life of its own, and it doesn’t go the way Cher thinks it should. In the process she finds herself falling for a boy that is out of her reach. All along she and Josh begin to find out there is more to their bond than they ever realized.

As Cher, Silverstone  is a force of nature. The way she manipulates people for the good is remarkably adorable. I can’t remember now if she did that thing with her lips outside of this movie, but it sure works here. Her ability to perform awkward physical stunts is a touch below Sofia Vergara on the Lucille Ball scale.

Heckerling and casting director Marcia Ross compiled an exceptionally well-balanced cast of remarkable character actors and real up and coming talent. Foremost among these is Paul Rudd, who plays it almost straight-laced college aged “ex” step brother, lingering around the house in his off time. He is funny and too serious simultaneously. A damp, if not altogether wet blanket. Anyone who looks at him knows he is completely cool.

Cher’s Dad, Mel is played with a brilliant grouchiness by Dan Hedeya. His complete rationality always provides an excellent blueprint for Cher’s own gifts in clear thinking at crucial points. Seeing him mow through Cher’s friends and acquaintances is great character development. It keeps Cher grounded and in her place as a high school kid, no matter how much she thinks she controls her situations otherwise. It’s subtlety like this that makes Clueless such a great film. Everything seems so blatant, but it’s filled with subtext.

Brittany Murphy got her big break here as the reclamation project. Her performance did not really foreshadow the success that shew would see a decade later. She and Dash are fun, though, wandering through Heckerling’s prose like they live and breathe it. Heckerling’s gift of making a well-to-do high school identifiable was prescient then, and now it fits like a comfortable pair of pajama pants.

Several catch phrases and moments resonate as easily today as they did then. “As if!” “Baldwin.” “Betty.” “Complaint Rock.” “…Surfing the Crimson Wave…” “Shame Spiral.” “Fashion victim” or “Ensembly Challenged.” Many of these phrases got their push into the public lexicon with this movie. Nothing, though, shows Heckerling’s scripting talent as much as:

Everything I think and everything I do is wrong. I was wrong about Elton, I was wrong about Christian, and now Josh hated me. It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion, I was just totally clueless. Oh, and this Josh and Tai thing was wigging me more than anything. I mean, what was my problem? Tai is my pal, I don’t begrudge her a boyfriend, I really… Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size. What does she want with Josh, anyway?

Clueless stands as the counter piece of Heckerling’s other career masterpiece High School films, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. If it’s slightly less dramatic, it leaves a wonderful feeling afterword. It’s easy to figure out why: no one has to die in order for these kids to go out into the world, unhindered. Still, it stands tall as one of the significant works of her career. It’s a shame she’s done more than these two, Look Who’s Talking, a Vacation sequel, A Night at the Roxbury and some TV episodes.  She has a unique talent to bring happiness to life. What she’s done here will have to do: it leaves me with a smile.

(***** out of *****)

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