Clueless

CluelessSynopsis: Sex. Clothes. Popularity. Whatever.

It’s not easy being the most popular and glamorous girl at Beverly Hills High. Especially when you’re the envy of scheming Betties (female babes), persistent Barneys (unattractive guys), and teachers who go postal (freak out) when you turn your homework in late! Yet somehow 15-year-old Cher (Alicia Silverstone) keeps it all together, even finding time for extracurricular projects like finding a love match for her debate class teacher (Wallace Shawn), and giving a dowdy friend (Brittany Murphy) a fashion makeover. But Cher’s tidy world starts to unravel with the sudden appearance of two total Baldwins (hunks): a sexy and stylish new classmate (Justin Walker), and Cher’s square but cute “ex-stepbrother” (Paul Rudd). Now Cher is about to learn that when it comes to love, she’s…well, Clueless.

Alicia Silverstone is “absolutely perfect” (Jeff Craig, Sixty Second Preview) in this hip, sassy comedy that’s “wickedly funny” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times) and majorly chronic (for translation, watch the movie!).

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Clueless 7.5

eyelights: Alicia Silverstone. Stacey Dash. Dan Hedaya. Wallace Shawn. its satirical touch.
eyesores: its prescient vision of teenage life.

“Okay, so you’re probably going, “Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?” But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.”

When ‘Clueless’ first came out, I was just out of my teens. I was an angry young man: I had grown my hair way down my back, was into metal, wore torn jeans and rock shirts, and befouled the atmosphere everywhere I went. Well, I jest just a little with that last remark, but I was certainly not the bubbliest person you’d ever meet. (Still ain’t, actually – I just don’t wear torn jeans or have long hair anymore)

‘Clueless’, as one can imagine, was hardly on my radar. I knew about it, of course, given that Alicia Silverstone had been in the widely popular Aerosmith videos for “Cryin'”, “Crazy” and “Amazing”. But, no matter how cute I thought she was (honestly, who didn’t?),  I just couldn’t bear the thought of watching a teen comedy about a ditzy SoCal blonde’s high school days. It appeared empty and beneath me.

Well, not only was it a box office smash, but it was also a critical success – everyone was talking about it favourably. So I eventually relented and saw the damned thing.

And you know what? I enjoyed it a lot more than I would ever have imagined; I was immediately won over by it. In fact, it thought that it was rather clever, actually. I thought that its send-up of the Valley Girl lifestyle was, like, totally bitchin’. Seriously! I found it funny as hell, and on many levels, too: the dialogues, situations, irony, satire, and even the performances all added up to a minor masterpiece.

Writer-director Amy Heckerling (of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ fame) loosely based her story on Jane Austen’s Emma.  I’ve never actually read Emma or seen any movie versions of it, but I’ve heard that the Gwyneth Paltrow one is worth seeing; I’ve actually had it on my radar for over 15 years. Alas, I suspect that what I like about ‘Clueless’, its satire of modern life, would be lost in the original.

Mel: “So, what did you do in school today?”
Cher: “Well, I broke in my purple clogs.”

In this version of the classic tale, Cher is a high school student whose only true focus is shopping at the mall with her best friend. She is the “it” girl at her school, and she spends much of her time choosing clothes. She has a tight relationship with her father, a mercenary attorney, whom she adores. Taking cues from him, she takes her grades as a “first offer”, often parlaying her way to a better report card.

Mel: “You mean to tell me that you argued your way from a C+ to an A-?”
Cher: “Totally based on my powers of persuasion. You proud?”
Mel: “Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades.”

Meanwhile, she has a difficult time with Josh, her father’s stepson (from a previous marriage), who keeps coming over even though they annoy each other to no end. She finds him grungy and classless, while he, given his political ideals, finds her extremely superficial, shallow. They spend much time poking fun at each other’s ways and trying to convert the one another. Obviously, this is a vain pursuit.

Josh: “Hey, in some parts of the universe, maybe not in contempo-casual, but in some parts, it’s considered cool to know what’s going on in the world.
Cher: “Thank you Josh. I so need lessons from you on how to be cool. Tell me the part about Kenny G again?”

Then, after doing a little matchmaking with two of her teachers (um… to influence their appraisals on her report card) , she discovers that she feels better when she makes a difference in people’s lives. And thus she decides that she’ll take on the duty of finding a girl that she considers clueless and remodel her in her own image – so that this girl may become more popular and, thus, happier. Of course.

Tai: “Do you think she’s pretty?”
Cher: “No, she’s a full-on Monet.”
Tai: “What’s a Monet?”
Cher: “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”

Of course, not everything goes as planned, and consequently Cher has to confront many aspects of her life. And that’s before she meets the perfect guy, whom she falls for, but then realizes that he’s not at all what she expected!

Cher: “Christian had a thing for Tony Curtis so he brought over “Some Like it Hot” and “Sporadicus”.”

Unexpectedly, Alicia Silverstone is absolutely brilliant as Cher, playing it up like a young, entitled Meg Ryan-type. I certainly never expected her to be any good, given that her claim to fame was a bunch of Aerosmith videos. But she totally nailed it and I can’t imagine anyone doing it any better; she was able to make the character likeable and endearing even though the whole time she is a joke, a parody of a certain brand of teenager.

What helps is that Cher is also written as relatively smart – she’s just spoiled rotten and doesn’t know anything other than the current life she leads (the scope of her worldview is astonishing: her reports on world events are hilariously limited!). But once her heart opens up, when she actually sees the impact she can have, and when she sees how all her beliefs are rooted in shallow ground, she finally clues in and takes to it like a swan to water.

Tai: “Cher, you’re a virgin?
Cher: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Dionne: “Besides, the PC term is “Hymenally challenged”.

I also really loved that she was a virgin for her own “solid” and “well-thought out” reasons, and is impervious to peer pressure and feels no shame. That’s a rare thing in this day and age, which I think is nice. Not that I advocate waiting until marriage or any such nonsense. Hardly. It’s just that it’s nice to see a teen character that’s not clichéd in that way. Forget the fact that she saving herself for Luke Perry, at least she’s not just a Paris Hilton-type.

While the film’s star is undoubtedly Silverstone, the rest of the cast is also quite good. In particular, Dan Hedaya shines as her dad. He made his name as Nick in ‘Cheers‘ and has been quite excellent in many parts (including ‘The Usual Suspects‘), but he’s absolutely terrific as the legal shark who spoils his daughter rotten but also knows how to set boundaries. There’s this great moment when he meets her new beau; his disapproval couldn’t be more tangible:

“Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel, I doubt anybody would miss you.”, he tells him. Priceless!

Paul Rudd is pretty good playing the stepbrother. It was my first time seeing him on screen and he made his mark, even though he doesn’t have a particularly unique character to play. Rudd’s style is subtle, making his characters amiable but a bit goofy. Hiss Josh credible and somewhat likeable, but he doesn’t really make him pop off the screen – which is probably right for the part, when you think of it. It’s just that it’s a bit par-for-the-course for Rudd.

Cher: “Dionne and her boyfriend Murray are in this dramatic relationship. I think they’ve seen that Ike and Tina Turner movie too many times.”

Stacey Dash is excellent as Dionne, Cher’s best friend. She’s very much like Cher and I like that they put an African-American (is this the proper PC term these days?) on the exact same footing as the lead, instead of being the disposable best friend. We really get the impression that they are equals and that Dionne could easily be Cher and vice-versa. A key difference is her relationship with her boyfriend, which is a hilarious touch to the picture.

Tai: “I could really use some sort of herbal refreshment.
Dionne: “Oh, well we do lunch in ten minutes. We don’t have any tea, but we have Coke and stuff.
Tai: “No shit. You guys got coke here?
Dionne: “Well, yeah.
Cher: “Yeah, this is America.

Brittany Murphy is quite good as Tai, the clueless new girl who’s into skaterboys and the grunge lifestyle, but allows herself to be changed by Cher and Dionne so that she can fit in; she was perfectly cooky and earthy despite the makeover. I didn’t quite buy the notion that she would become more popular than Cher, though; it just happened overnight and didn’t seem credible at all. However, while it was contrived, it served the plot appropriately enough.

I also was terribly impressed with Wallace Shawn, who plays Mr. Hall, the male teacher that Cher pairs up. While Twink Caplan was suitably nerdy as his counterpart, Shawn has a presence that I adore: he’s authoritative, intelligent and incisive. Thankfully, he played it more straight forward here than in ‘The Princess Bride‘, where he agreeably chewed up the scenery. In ‘Clueless’ he bring it down to earth and makes Mr. Hall a real person.

Travis: “I joined this program and there’s steps. There’s… uh…”
Cher: “Twelve?”
Travis: “Yeah, how’d you know?
Cher: “Wild guess.

Finally, one has to mention the appearance of Breckin Meyer in his breakthrough appearance as Travis, the skater that Tai has her eye on. He’s not outstanding here, but he’s memorable enough. And then there’s Jeremy Sisto, who plays a snooty rich kid that Cher is trying to set up with Tai, oblivious to the fact that he likes her instead. Sisto doesn’t do anything for me at all, but he was incredibly creepy in ‘Six Feet Under’ as the unstable brother.

‘Clueless’ is peppered with tons of superb touches, including a dig at the plastic surgery that SoCal girls have a reputation for. I’ll always remember seeing all the girls walking around with post-surgery bandages. Or even the first signs of cel phone addiction, in the way that Cher and Dionne communicate in the school’s halls. It was brilliant, prescient of Heckerling, but in some ways it’s sad to see that this has become a reality now; it’s no longer just an exaggeration.

Cher: “I feel like such a heifer. I had two bowls of Special K, 3 pieces of turkey bacon, a handful of popcorn, 5 peanut butter M&M’s and like 3 pieces of licorice. “

Another thing that I found disappointing was the sheer amount of product placement littering the film. For a teen comedy, I don’t really understand why they needed to do it – surely the budget didn’t require any padding. But the producers likely knew that they had an influenceable audience and decided to shill for a few corporations, throwing in references to Egg McMuffins, Noxzema, Special K, M&Ms, Carefree gum, Mentos, and so forth and so on. Frankly, I found that  in poor taste.

Cher: “Suddenly a dark cloud settled over first period… I got a C in debate?”

It’s not enough to deter from my enjoyment however. Where the film falls down for me, is when Cher’s status takes a tumble, when she starts re-evaluating her life. While I commend the filmmakers’ attempt at inserting a positive message without hitting people over the head, it felt forced and slightly unbelievable, totally uncharacteristic of Cher. Like, whatever. ‘Clueless’ really loses momentum and its edge at this point – and this the reason that I don’t rate more highly (n.b.: the first 2/3 would be at least an 8.0, but that last part is a 6.5-7.0).

Having said this, teen comedies are rarely this smart and this well made. Even its soundtrack, if dated now, is stunningly good. So, despite my eventual disappointment, I’m still butt crazy in love with this picture, and would gladly watch it again any old time. It just goes to show that, sometimes, appearances can be deceiving; if I hadn’t taken the time to give the picture a chance, I would have missed out based on a misconception. Well, I was just totally clueless.

As if.

Date of viewing: July 21, 2013

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