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Clueless

Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Dan Hedaya, Elisa Donovan, Donald Faison, Justin Walker, Jeremy Sisto, Breckin Meyer, Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplan

(US DVD: 1 May 2012)

An updated version of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless is a brilliant ‘90s take on the universal themes of love, friendship, and family, told through the lens of a Beverly Hills High student. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, the movie does an excellent job of making characters that are at first glance vapid and out of touch much more empathetic and relatable than their initial impressions.


Released in 1995, Clueless is packed with pop culture references and teen speak that is half Valley girl phrasing, half clever observation. The movie is narrated by 15-year-old Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and follows the complicated high school politics of not only her friends, but of high school in general. When Cher takes it upon herself to mentor a new transfer student, Tai (Brittany Murphy), she enlists the help of her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash) and the film employs the classic teen film moment of makeover and transformation for Tai. 


Cher and Dionne’s makeover of Tai includes bringing her into their group of friends and attempting to set her up with Elton (Jeremy Sisto), who already has a crush on Cher. The drama of this triangle is very funny in its over the top seriousness, particularly Tai’s disappointment, and Cher’s outrageously insulted reaction to Elton’s come on. 


Matchmaking is at the center of Clueless, and it takes on massive levels of importance. Everyone, from Cher – and her ill-advised attempts to make Christian (Justin Walker), the obviously gay new student in class, her boyfriend – to Tai and Elton’s all-in-her-head relationship, even to Cher’s efforts to bring together absentminded teacher Ms. Geist (Twink Caplan) and nerdy fellow teacher Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn), Clueless revolve around relationship issues. However, because high school is a time when friends are an almost all-consuming part of their lives, Cher and her friends are equally as bonded in their own platonic relationships with each other, making Clueless about more than just teenagers in love. 


While it could have easily devolved into the story of a materialistic, self-involved, unsympathetic character like Cher, Clueless takes into account her intentions, which are always good, however misguided. Introducing Josh (Paul Rudd) as her serious and focused former stepbrother, the film wisely grounds Cher by having their interactions be both light and weighty, particularly when dealing with Tai’s crush on Josh. Josh is as much Cher’s conscience as she is his excuse to have fun, and that balance is at the heart of what Heckerling achieves with the film as a whole. 


The humor in Clueless is often at Cher’s expense but never in a way that humiliates or makes her unlikable. For example, Cher’s debate with her nemesis, Amber (Elisa Donovan), on the topic of allowing oppressed refugees into the United States shows her sharp thinking—if somewhat warped world view. She hilariously compares that situation to those failing to RSVP to her party showing up anyway – a ridiculous analogy, to be sure, but one in which her charm and sincerity demonstrate that Cher is more three-dimensional than she might seem. 


Silverstone is perfectly cast as Cher. No matter how out there and ridiculous Cher gets, Silverstone is able to give her an innocence and likeability that is integral to the success of the film. Apart from Silverstone’s star turn as Cher, Clueless is filled with a great cast of supporting characters. Dash and Murphy are wonderful in rounding out this unlikely trio of friends; Sisto is reliably sleazy while Rudd is equal parts thoughtful and silly. Much of the cast would go on to be much more recognizable roles, but their parts on Clueless are terrific.


Clueless excels because of Heckerling’s smart take on these characters. In basing them on Austen’s, she recognizes that there is more to them than their outward appearance. Much of Austen’s work revolves around issues of class and societal mores. In transposing those same themes – that certainly remain a part of teen life even now – in a contemporary setting, Heckerling manages to bring the same level of subtlety and wit to Clueless


Yes, the movie can be viewed on a purely superficial level as one filled with funny (and now dated) references to clothes, pop culture, and technology, but it also offers a genuine portrait of those same larger themes contained in Emma. Moreover, Cher is an intelligent character. Despite how she may sound or carry herself, Cher is ambitious, dedicated to doing well in school, and genuinely interested in people. In the end, Clueless remains as enjoyable today as it was when it was first released. In fact, over time it has only gained a sweetness that perfectly goes hand in hand with Heckerling’s quick witted and, at times, biting dialogue to elevate the film above a the glut of teen comedies available.


This latest Blu-ray release contains all the same bonus features included in the previously released ‘Whatever! Edition’, with the exception of the new Clue or False Trivia Game.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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