Did you really think I would miss the opportunity to re-watch “Clueless” on its 25th Anniversary? Ugh! As if!
Director: Amy Heckerling
Writer: Amy Heckerling
Stars: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
For any of my younger readers who may have missed this gem because it came out before your birth, let me give a bit of a plot synopsis. If any of you want to watch with me, as of August 9, 2020, the movie is now available to stream with a Netflix subscription.
Clueless is based loosely on a Jane Austen novel, Emma, with a setting change to Beverly Hills in 1995. The plot centers around Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) a beautiful, rich, and bright young socialite, who lives in a mansion with her $500/hr litigator father. Cher’s mother died when she was a baby. Cher’s former step-brother, Josh (Paul Rudd), a college freshman, is still close with Cher’s father and has started helping her father with his work. Cher’s best friend is named Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash.) Cher narrates that they are friends because they “both know what it’s like for people to be jealous” of them.
Cher is not a hardworking student. However, she excels at improving her grades via negotiation with her teachers. In one particularly tough case, she manages to improve her grade with Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) by surreptitiously setting him up with another teacher, Miss Geist (Twink Caplan) and thereby improving his mood. After setting up her teachers successfully, Cher realizes that she enjoys doing good things for other people. She then decides to give a make-over to the new girl in school, Tai (Brittany Murphy.)
Cher tries to set Tai up with one of the “acceptable” guys at their school, Elton (Jeremy Sisto.) To do this, she discourages Tai’s interest in a friendly but unacceptable skateboarding drug-abuser, Travis Birkenstock (Breckin Meyer). The effort to set Tai up with Elton fails when Elton aggressively makes advances on Cher, instead.
At this point in the movie, everything for Cher begins to go wrong. She gets robbed. She decides to romantically pursue another boy from her school, Christian (Justin Walker), only to discover after embarrassing herself that he is gay. Tai’s popularity suddenly surpasses her own. Dionne and her boyfriend, Murray (Donald Faison) have sex for the first time leaving Cher as the only virgin in her small circle of friends. Cher, whose underage terrible driving has been a background joke throughout the film, fails her driving test. For the first time she cannot talk her way through the failure. After the failed test, she finds out that Tai is romantically interested in her former step-brother, Josh, and Cher finds that she is particularly bothered by this last revelation.
After hitting rock bottom, Cher feels “clueless.” Abruptly, she realizes she is “butt crazy in love with Josh.” Cher begins making sincere efforts to be a better person. The efforts pay off. She sees that Tai is still attracted to the skateboarder, Travis, and encourages the pairing. This coupling then clears the way for her interest in Josh. Cher next helps her teacher, Miss Geist, with the Pimo Beach Disaster Relief effort. She then joins her step-brother Josh in helping her father with paperwork in one of his cases. In the midst of this effort to help her father, Cher and Josh admit to having feelings for each other.
The movie ends at Mr. Hall and Miss Geist’s wedding. Cher catches the bouquet, helps Josh to win a $200 bet in the process, and the two kiss to end the film.
I had not seen Clueless in a very long time prior to watching it last night. I vaguely remembered the outcome, and a few of the most famous quotes, but I did not remember a lot of details between the beginning and the end of the film. Unlike a lot of my other re-watches, this felt relatively fresh. A lot of the quotes and jokes landed for me like lines upon a first listen. As a result, I thought that the movie feeling so fresh would be useful for writing the review. When I review TV shows, or book chapters, my M.O. typically is to keep track of the plot and to pocket a few quotes for use in my plot recaps. What I discovered about 10 minute into this movie is that saving quotes for the recap would mean just copy and pasting the script. Almost every line in the movie is quotable.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“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.”
“Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972.”
“Oh how fabulous. Getting Marky Mark to take time from his busy pants dropping schedule to plant trees.”
“You’re a virgin who can’t drive!”
“That was way harsh, Tai.”
“OK, so he is kind of a Baldwin.”
“She could be a farmer in those clothes.”
“She’s a full-on Monet. It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close it’s a big old mess.”
“I’m totally butt crazy in love with Josh.”
“I feel like such a heifer.”
“My street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily in misoogynistic, undertones.”
“Ugh! As if!”
The movie launched the careers of several cast members. Alicia Silverstone (her earlier creepy music videos do not count), Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, and Jeremy Sisto could all point back to this movie as their first big role. Stacey Dash had been working a little longer than the other young stars, prior to Clueless, but Dionne is the role that made her famous. In the sense that this movie was such a point of origin for several famous people, it was culturally significant.
The movie was also culturally significant in and of itself. It is set in 1995. This is the year where Gen X began to phase out of teen culture and younger Millennial teens began to assert some dominance of that culture. 1995 was no longer Nirvana’s America but it was not yet The Backstreet Boys’ America, either. It was a crossroads year. Cher is a confident, colorful, cheerful, rejection of the dreary, angst-ridden, grunge that came before her. We see this rejection take place in the judgmental way that she talks about the high school boys at her school who still embrace skateboarding, too baggy clothes, using drugs too often, and slacker culture generally – an early 90s Gen X teenage stereotype.
On the other hand, Cher’s personal growth in the movie stems from moving beyond what subsequently became Millennial stereotypes. She went from being spoiled, selfish, and unaware to making heartfelt efforts at altruism. Instead of being just “a ditz with a credit card” she began to concern herself with the wider world and then to work toward making that world a better place.
The character of Cher, thus, simultaneously affirmed the world view of two different generations, each in different ways. That undoubtedly played a role in the success of the film.
Aside from the plot elements, there are other callbacks in Clueless to Jane Austen’s Emma. For me, the most noticeable link is the dialogue. Tai – someone who feels like a stand-in for the audience at times – even comments on this when she says, “Wow, you guys talk like grown-ups!” This use of language seems to have made a mark on the Millennial audience, too. After Clueless, Hollywood made a *lot* of movies wherein teenagers acted out modern retellings of centuries old plays and musicals. The trend even went to television. Gilmore Girls, which ran from 2000-2007, was an entire series built around high speed Jane Austen style dialogue. The success of the show might owe something to a foundation laid, with its audience, by Clueless.
What’s my favorite moment from the movie? Learning to drive is an on-going theme throughout the film. At one point in the film, while she is learning to drive, Dionne accidentally gets on the freeway. The entire movie is worth watching just to see this scene. This was by far my biggest laugh.
OKAY. Now that I’ve said the nice things about this movie, let me tell you what I did not like.
When this movie starts, Cher is a FIFTEEN YEAR OLD socialite, with little parental supervision. She spends a lot of the movie driving illegally, she clearly uses drugs for recreational purposes (though not on camera), her equally young friends are sexually active, and Cher aspires to also be sexually active- she just happens to be choosy. She ends up “choosing* her 18 or 19 year old… former step-brother.
Once you pay attention to the ages of the characters, a lot of what they do and say just feels… creepy and gross.
At one point in the movie, Cher is robbed at gunpoint, and after, there are no consequences whatsoever – emotional or legal. The scene is played largely for laughs because Cher is more concerned about laying on the ground in her designer clothes than about her own safety.
The movie even makes note of the absurdity of how little heed that type of trauma was paid, in a meta way, when Cher brings the incident up later as the other characters are making a fuss over Tai’s almost fall from an upper floor of the mall. Cher only brings it up because she is feeling jealous of Tai. For me, though, as I watched it, I felt some shame for having forgotten that the scene had occurred earlier in the movie. Once I remembered, though, then *I* felt gross. Is it so easy to just forget a teenage girl having a gun pointed at her head? I guess so.
I also noticed something in this movie that I might not have noticed in the time before people like Jeffrey Epstein were being arrested and FBI codes were being more widely shared with the public. Look at Dionne’s hat.
Ultimately, my feelings on the film end up mixed. The movie is funny, the dialogue is well-written, it is culturally significant… and it was also creepy and uncomfortable to watch.