[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Amy Heckerling | Director: Amy Heckerling | Aired: 07/19/1995]
“But seriously, I have a way normal life for a teenage girl.” – Cher
The success of a film can be deceiving.
Over twenty years after its original theatrical release, Clueless is still stunningly popular. The film has developed a strong cult following. “As if!” has entered the national lexicon. A new generation of adolescent girls (and – though they’ll probably tell you otherwise – quite a few boys) are falling in love with the film that charmed their parents into making it one of the sleeper hits of the mid-90s.
The success can be deceiving, in this case, because too many people attribute it to the wrong factors. Clueless leans heavily on the world of the superficial, crafting a utopian world of adolescence that’s seemingly geared to appeal to impressionable young female minds. It speaks to its audience through a character so shallow, materialistic, and yes, clueless that it would seem hard to imagine anyone in the post-high school demographic relating to her. Externally, Clueless looks like a cheap consumer product, designed to distract its target audience with pretty clothes and cars while offering nothing of substantial value.
But if Clueless proves anything, it’s that the world of superficiality is a lot more complicated than you may think. So a film that appears to be a lazy Barbie-doll riff turns out to be surprisingly layered – and Barbie herself proves more than just a polished chunk of plastic.
To fully understand and appreciate Clueless, we must delve into the film’s unconventional source material. Said source material would be Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, the benign story of a rich young woman with a large heart and an equally large sense of social status. Emma Woodhouse spends much of the novel attempting to improve the lives of others, yet she’s still not especially likable – her reading of her friends and relatives often feels spontaneous, and once she gets an impression of someone, no amount of convincing can change it. Suffice to say, Emma is depicted as rather naïve, and learns a transformative lesson about respecting others before the story wraps.
Even at the time, Austen knew her character was unconventional – as she would later write in her memoirs, she had set out to create “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” But the book was so true to its unconventionality – and its title character so ardent in her philosophy – that the audience wound up liking her, anyway.
A hundred and eighty years later, Amy Heckerling (who had previously helmed the controversial Fast Times at Ridgemont High) dusted off the well-worn book and turned her cameras on a modern-day remake. Clueless follows the basic structure of Emma – but its real success lies in the way it captures its spirit.
Cher Horowitz (the excellent Alicia Silverstone) is popular, pretty, and successful. She’s also incredibly shallow and materialistic. Yes, one by one, every Valley Girl cliché drops neatly into place. But Clueless, like Emma, is fully committed to its heroine and her environment, and the film’s tone knows precisely how to make Cher worth rooting for.
Compare Clueless to Mean Girls. (Because, hey, doesn’t everybody?) While a great comedy in its own right, Mean Girls – straight down to its title – builds its comedy off a world of cynicism. The popular girls are referred to as “Plastics” – walking mannequins draped in the latest designer fashions – and Lindsay Lohan’s protagonist spends much of the film resisting the cold, mechanical pull of the teenage hierarchy.
Clueless channels numerous modes, but cynical is not one of them. The film celebrates Cher’s carefree materialism without pandering to its audience; it builds its high school world on charm and optimism. It’s smart enough to know that Cher is a flawed person, but self-aware enough to make us care for her regardless.
Early scenes establish Cher as a girl who knows how to work the system. Her means of charming teachers into raising her grades may seem unethical, but they paint her as too sharp to fall under the “dumb blonde” stereotype. The film makes a great deal out of her romantically pairing two single teachers, displaying her as kindhearted even as her actions are all part of an elaborate ruse.
Cher faces no criticism in her unorthodox methods – with the possible exception of the bratty Amber, the closest thing Clueless has to an actual villain. (And even Amber takes advantage of Cher’s scholarly shortcuts – after her rival responds to a debate question about immigration with a seemingly nonsensical answer about RSVPs, Amber worms out of responding with “If she doesn’t do the assignment, I can’t do mine.”) Even Cher’s business-minded father (a hard-nosed Dan Hedaya) approves of her efforts to “start negotiations” with her teachers. For all of Cher’s apparent faults, it’s hard to condemn her when she achieves such support and such positive outcomes.
Equally as effective at making Cher a sympathetic protagonist is her unconventional lingo. Heckerling’s script takes the typically crusty teen jargon that bandies about public high schools and cleverly turns it inside-out. Common words get their most extraneous syllables pared off. Pronouns fall by the wayside. Pop-culture references flit in and out of daily conversation. The dialogue of Clueless (which has influences the grammar in films like the aforementioned Mean Girls and The Duff, as well as shows ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Veronica Mars and Awkward) works as more than mere comedy, however – it sets up a positive emotional barrier between Cher and the viewer, making it more difficult for us to see the flaws in her character.
Heckerling wrote the dialogue to feel in-the-moment, and she succeeded – perhaps too well. The vernacular feels quite dated by current standards, with characters spouting numerous phrases that would sound out-of-place in a 21st-century conversation. And the dialogue is not alone in this regard – everything about the setting of the film, from the fashion to the technology to the celebrity gossip, feels distinctly mid-90s. One can and should expect a teen-targeting film to take advantage of then-current trends, but Clueless seems unhealthily obsessed with the culture of 1995. By rights, the film should feel manipulative and incredibly dated. Yet impressively, it still avoids getting wrinkled by the ravages of time.
Clueless succeeds not by avoiding the zeitgeist, but by fully and unapologetically embracing it. There is no hesitation on the film’s part, no Luke Perry reference or “Freshmaker” commercial it refuses to foist on its audience. The film lives and breathes the world of 1995, every frame a distillation of the totally radical decade. Our protagonist has built her popularity around being “in the moment,” so it’s only natural that Clueless emphasizes how incredibly “in the moment” everything is. In a strange way, the film actually holds up even better with a few decades of hindsight, now that we can truly appreciate how superficially current the world of Cher Horowitz really is.
The pop-culture wit, upbeat tone, and crackling dialogue blend together into a marvelously sweet confection, carrying the film through its delightful first two acts. The story itself may owe an unpayable debt to Emma, but the execution is fresh and unique, and keeps us enthralled even when the film steers into conventional teen shenanigans.
To an extent, Clueless is predictable – one needs no prescription to see that Cher will learn the error of her ways by the film’s end. But the film is so fully committed to its journey that it doesn’t really matter. Watching Cher train unstylish classmate Tai (the late Brittany Murphy) in the rules of popularity (scored in part to Jill Sobule’s then-fresh “Supermodel”) is a ton of fun, which makes Tai’s eventual “student becomes the master” turn all the more engaging. And Cher’s endless bickering with stepbrother Josh (a young, well-cast Paul Rudd) is retroactively made more amusing once Cher discovers (while framed against a lit fountain in one of the film’s more inspired visuals) that the two of them are soulmates. This last development is perfectly in sync with Cher’s journey – how fitting that such a shortsighted young woman would find romance with the closest man she can find. (It’s also to the film’s credit that it completely avoids any incest jokes – such tastelessness would undercut the sincerity of Cher’s decision.)
Essentially, Clueless avoids the pitfalls of the modern teen film by piling on the fun. And indeed, that’s the most appropriate word I can use to describe it. I could spend several more paragraphs talking about the unique cadences and rhythms of the dialogue, but these thoughts could easily be summarized by calling Clueless one of the most infectiously quotable films I’ve ever seen. (The list I’ve cherry-picked for the Quotes section only scratches the surface; if I had to rattle off every great line and exchange in the film, we’d be here all day.) I could also spend time discussing the joys of the hilarious yet nuanced supporting cast, from Cher’s overbearing father (Dan Hedaya) to her superficial counterpoint Dionne (Stacey Dash). The talented cast (which also includes Wallace Shawn, Elisa Donovan, Breckin Mayer, Donald Faison, Justin Walker, and Jeremy Sisto) perfectly meshes with Heckerling’s charming world of chipper adolescence.
There are more faithful and prestigious adaptations of Emma (including an eponymous film released not long after Clueless, starring Gwyneth Paltrow), and more relatable onscreen depictions of high school life. But few films, to my knowledge, have blended the sophisticated and the shallow as effortlessly as Clueless, and been as energetic and entertaining all the while. To the charge that the film is pandering and self-indulgent, the response is obvious: As if!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The moment when Lucy runs frightened from Cher’s dad never fails to crack me up.
+ Amber’s “Whatever!” hand-signal.
+ Mr. Hall’s reaction to Travis’ attempted window jump: “Could the suicide attempts please be postponed until next period?”
+ Cher watches Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butt-head. Those don’t necessarily seem like shows she would enjoy, until you really factor in her adolescent shallowness.
+ Dionne and Murray’s relationship is among the film’s more subtle pieces of indelible writing. She considers him her soulmate, yet never shows anything but contempt toward his habits.
+ Cher getting mugged. Even during its most harrowing scenes, the film never loses track of its main character.
+ “Sporadicus.” Sounds like a good film. Though I hope not sporadically.
+ You see, kids, there was a time when being referred to as “kind of a Baldwin” was actually a compliment.