[30 August 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Why am I even listening to you to begin with? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.
—Tai (Brittany Murphy), Clueless
I can see why Amy likes working with teenagers, because they’re not jaded yet.
—Twink Caplan, Associate Producer, “Class of ‘95”
“When I first read I just thought, this is funny. This was by the lady who directed Fast Times and apparently they had the girl from the Aerosmith videos in it. That’s all we knew.” So remembers Breckin Meyer, looking not very different than he did when he appeared in Clueless, the 10-year-old movie he’s talking about.
At first it’s hard to believe that Clueless is that old. But then you see it again on Paramount’s new Whatever! edition, and you see that it is indeed that old. Which is not to say it’s not still adorable and clever and joyous, only that its age shows a little. Like it does for other classics. The DVD, unfortunately, doesn’t offer so much to exploit its wonders, a set of short featurettes with returning cast and crew opining on what it was like back then. These include: “Class of ‘95” (a look -back by cast and crew, prompting the question: why is Murphy a movie star and Silverstone not?), “Creative Writing” (Heckerling and her team discuss the project’s origins and scripting from Austen), “Fashion 101” (focusing on costume designer Mona May), “Language Arts” (about the slang), “Suck ‘N Blow: A Tutorial” (home/on-set movies about the techniques involved), and “Driver’s Ed” (shooting the freeway driving scene, where Amy Heckerling’s comment sums up: “I Love the freeway, I love the idea that, you know, if you’re in that lane, you wind up there, and there’s nothing you can do about it”).
As most everyone who was sentient in 1995 will remember, Cher was Alicia Silverstone’s moment. In Clueless, she was the ultimate Betty, Cher’s term for perfect girl: beautiful, popular, and repulsively rich, a Beverly Hills high school student who drives a fabulous white jeep even though she only has a learner’s permit, who shops to feel “in control” (with her lawyer dad’s credit cards). Named after a certain infamous infomercialist, she chats on her cellular phone, hangs out with only the cool people, and appreciates the existential depths of Ren and Stimpy. She spends her time fussing over her friends’ dating and watching her father’s health (he’s played by Dan Hedaya, of whose casting Heckerling says, “I wanted to cast somebody who would normally be cast as a hitman in movies and then play him as the father of a teenage girl, so other people would be afraid of him, but to her, he’s just daddy.” “I wanted him to diet and thinking up ways to “do good stuff” for other people, Cher says. Like, she’s the Anti-Heather.
In Clueless, Silverstone reveals a comic flexibility and apparent sense of irony, though it’s hard to tell “at this age” where her moves between ingenuous and cunning, childish and sultry might be coming from. She was “Legally Blonde” long before Reese Witherspoon. She also seems to have a flair for slapstick and an expressive face, you know, like an actor. The film doesn’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before, especially if you watched the first few years of 90210, before they went off to college and became socially conscious. But it revisits this territory with an engaging mixture of affection and acerbic awareness. It’s got a readymade-hits soundtrack (including songs by Lucious Jackson, Counting Crows, Jill Sobule, Coolio, Cracker). And it has the basic character types familiar from Fast Times, barely updated: the best friend (Stacey Dash), the awkward but quick-study newcomer (Brittany Murphy), the loader (dope-smoker) skateboarder (Breckin Meyer), the pretty, thud-headed stud (Jeremy Sisto), the fashion-conscious gay boy (Justin Walker), and the witty nerd who turns out to be the maximum love-object (Paul Rudd).
As this line-up suggests, there’s not much going on here that’s subversive or remarkable (except perhaps that it’s so watchable, which it may have no business being). As “teen movies” go, Clueless is self-consciously lightweight, featuring no violence or generational battles (no mothers in sight, either). There’s no class or money angst (Cher’s large white house features “classic columns, dating back from 1978”), no racial conflicts (multiculti-ness is taken for granted: there’s a student face in the crowd representing most every ethnicity), no sexual crises (except that Cher is a virgin, or as Dionne observes, “hymenally challenged,” and so understandably concerned about her future). The world of the film is ideal, shimmering, stable. Cher believes she’s completely clued in: she alternates between Jane Fonda or “Buns of Steel,” watches The Real World (because it’s so real), and negotiates for better grades with her terminally unhip teachers (Wallace Shawn teaches the debating class).
It’s po-mo too, assuming its audience knows all about malls and, moreover, that life in this particular fast lane is both titillating and ridiculous, that reality—what counts, fashion and morality options—is a matter of media images. (This despite and because of producer Robert Lawrence’s assertion that the young actors were cast for how “real’’ they would be on screen. Yeah yeah. Next?)
Cher does go through a kind of development: initially superficial, overly concerned with her wardrobe (she uses a computer program to organize matching outfits from her mega-closet full of crazily colorful designer clothes) and her career as magnificent babe (she has no interest in those scrungy high school boys, the ones uniformed in baggy jeans and flannel shirts), she learns something about something resembling Values and Love, which translates to finding romance, predictably under her perfect nose. While she’s busy orchestrating Tai’s (Murphy) love life, she inadvertently stumbles upon her own (and the realization scene is appropriately excessive: a huge fountain lights up behind her like an oracle).
Cher’s precocious and precious voice-over provides much of the film’s humor. Her self-knowing yet guileless narration grants Clueless an approximated coherence and point of view. More to the point, articulates the joke for its in-the-know viewers, and doesn’t much worry about the rest. Malls are real life. Like, get a clue.