WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Clean-cut student Joel Goodsen frets that he won’t make it to college, but his friends are more predictably concerned with getting their ends away. When Joel’s parents leave him to his own devices for the weekend, he succumbs to temptation, setting up a week of satisfaction, intimidation and a partnership with young prostitute Lana that shows a bundle of entrepreneurial spirit but incurs the wrath of her jealous pimp, Guido.
It’s convenient to remember the 1980s as a time of tastelessness and vulgarity, a decade whose films were typified by broad, big-haired fare like The Breakfast Club, Ruthless People and Wall Street. This easy classification, however, is a lazy one: for though some of what’s on display is vulgar, many films of the early 80s in particular are a good deal more interesting than the surface lets on. The same is true of Risky Business, fondly remembered for the much-copied scene of Joel – a young Tom Cruise – dancing in his white shirt, socks and pants in his parent-free house. The scene suggests a teen comedy, but although there are laughs in Brickman’s film, they are qualified by a substantial amount of edgy drama.
For Joel is a troubled teen whose adolescent desires are invaded by fear of making a horrible mistake and not getting into college (he continually dreams about seducing next door’s babysitter, leading him – in his dream – to fail his exams), despite the advice of his friends to say (something like) ‘what the hell’ once in a while. When the Goodsens go on holiday, leaving strict instructions to leave his father’s Porsche in the garage, Joel enjoys the freedom of having the house to himself; but while his friends are happy to use the empty house as a place to make out, Joel dutifully sticks to his homework until he is set up with a suspiciously deep-voiced escort called Jackie. He/she takes pity on the youngster and gives him the number of Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), whom Joel calls for a night of passion; but when Joel cannot come up with her $300 price, Lana takes his mother’s crystal egg as surety, and in trying to retrieve this trinket Joel makes an enemy of Lana’s ‘killer pimp’ Guido (Joe Pantoliano).
Lana escapes from Guido and gets to know Joel properly, but his drug-induced carelessness sees Dad’s car sinking into Lake Michigan. How can he possibly raise the money to get the car fixed? Well, he has lots of horny friends; Lana knows a group of women prepared to provide a service; and Joel, if he plays ‘house’, is entitled to fifty percent. Of course, someone from Princeton dropping by to conduct an interview in the middle of the pair’s ‘introductions’ would be disastrous – or so you might think.
If the set-up sounds boisterous, crude and a bit John Hughes-ish (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for example, or Weird Science), the film for the large part doesn’t play out this way. The group of lads talk about sex, naturally, but importantly the film creates a full character in Joel, Tom Cruise doing an excellent job of conveying both the desires and fears of a young man desperate not to disappoint his parents, and as someone prepared to turn on the charm if it gets him out of trouble (the shades-and-cigarette motif effectively marks out the change of character). As the film focuses on the dramatic spiral of events and whether Joel can stop them to get his house back in order, almost nothing is exaggerated for comic purposes alone; and in the character of Guido, Pantoliano provides Cruise with an unnerving enemy, even if he is surprisingly forgiving and rational at the film’s end.
As Lana, meanwhile, De Mornay is perfectly cast: undoubtedly attractive, she neither looks too young nor too clean for the part, and unlike (say) Pretty Woman the balance of power between hooker and customer is presented as pretty much equal. Thankfully, too, the film’s design eschews most of the decade’s more outlandish fashions and doesn’t look particularly ‘eighties.’ Even the music – Tangerine Dream, The Police, Phil Collins – has stood the test of time.
At this distance, Risky Business is wide open to complaints that its pre-AIDS attitude to prostitutes is naïve and its message of ‘irresponsibility sometimes pays off’ is itself irresponsible. On the first count, all you can say is that the film is of its time and sex – between Joel and Lana, at least – is treated with some gravity, not in tittering American Pie fashion. On the second, Joel is merely showing himself to be a Future Entrepreneur par excellence, only not with the goods thought up by the rest of his class: occasionally in life, ‘what the hell’ is the only appropriate response.
Certainly Risky Business tells its story and makes its points more directly, more vividly and with greater tension and style than The Girl Next Door, which obviously takes this film as its starting point. Not to waste too much space on comparisons but Brickman tells Joel and Lana’s story in some depth, whereas Luke Greenfield is only interested in showing Elisha Cuthbert to best advantage and playing his old records; and whereas Emile Hirsch remains an unconvincing kid, Cruise obviously becomes a man – though the film’s biggest fans would have to admit the pullbacks to childhood photographs, and the pun in the family surname, are both a bit clunky.
With its curiously weighty atmosphere and one of Cruise’s best performances, Risky Business stands apart from the bawdy, chauvinist comedies of the time – or, at least, deserves to. It’s a thoughtful piece which goes for tension over titillation and character over comedy, and although this might not make it the best fun to watch, it ensures that the film will be regarded favourably long after the real dross from the eighties has been completely forgotten.