WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Air-headed rich girl Cher Horowitz has her own life so sorted that she takes it upon herself to organise everyone else’s. In particular, she decides to scrub up Tai, the new girl at her school, and pair her up with a well-heeled boy. However, Cher’s best-laid plans go terribly awry when he goes after her instead, and more humiliation is to follow when she sets her cap at the handsome but strangely reluctant Christian. Could her sometime stepbrother Josh prove to be an unlikely Knight(ley) in shining armour?
Confident blonde Cher (Alicia Silverstone) may not be the greatest driver or the sharpest tool in the box, but she’s rich, which counts for a lot in Beverly Hills. Together with equally sharp-dressing valley girl Dionne (Stacey Dash), she rules the roost over her high school, improving on poor grades by matchmaking grumpy teachers Mr Hall and Miss Geist (Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan). Cher’s success as Cupid inspires her to take on trashy new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) as a ‘project’, which means modernising her wardrobe and turning her attention away from compatible skater boy Travis (Breckin Meyer) towards well-groomed Elton (Jeremy Sisto). Unfortunately, the result of Cher’s string-pulling is Elton hitting on her instead, then getting robbed when she spurns his advances and he dumps her on the street.
Luckily, Cher’s ex-step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) is on hand to keep the incident away from the angry ears of her lawyer father Mel (Dan Hedaya); and he’s also there to keep watch when Cher decides she’s in love with the cute and curiously waspish Christian (Justin Walker). For all her assumed worldliness, Cher discovers she has a lot to learn about her influence over and interactions with others, especially when it comes to love.
From a purely linguistic view, I should be tamping mad with Clueless. As a film which celebrates West Coast mangling of the English language, full of ‘likes’ and ‘as ifs’ and the ubiquitous ‘Whatever’ gesture, I should really be baying for writer/director Heckerling’s blood. And the very thought of turning Jane Austen’s classic Emma into a vehicle for spoilt young fashion victims!
Amazingly, Clueless is filmed and performed so disarmingly brightly and in such good spirit that it’s hard not to go with it. Heckerling displays great wit in relocating Austen’s story and characters to California, turning the Miss Bates bits into charity work and compressing the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax storyline – strangely effectively – into the character of Christian, even if what eventually happens is blindingly obvious to everyone bar Cher. The screenplay is full of nice touches, such as the dozens of students recovering from nose jobs in the background of many scenes; and even if, catchphrases apart, the film doesn’t have the memorable sting of the lines in (for example) 10 Things I Hate About You, that’s not necessarily a drawback, since this is a much bubblier affair, more akin to Legally Blonde (Elle Woods could be Cher a few years later).
It should be noted, too, that Clueless is the grande dame of literary classic to high school adaptations*, assuming West Side Story is discounted (as I think it must be), and provides a pretty thorough template, right down to the obligatory smattering of eclectic tunes on the soundtrack (Radiohead, Supergrass, Coolio, Jewel). Though many other movies have built on the formula to varying degrees of success – Cruel Intentions, Get Over It, She’s All That – they all follow the trail blazed by Heckerling.
It also helps that the cast are all well-chosen: Silverstone is central to the movie’s success, good enough to be annoyingly vacuous, non-threateningly alluring and winningly vulnerable in quick succession; Rudd, in an early role, uses his natural charm and humour to good effect; Brittany Murphy (bless her) is also really good as Tai, transforming funnily from Cher’s scruffy lab rat to Queen Bee (to mix both animal metaphors and movie references); and Dan Hedaya makes for an intimidating but admirably protective father. I wasn’t struck by Donald Faison’s gangsta-style Murray (Dionne’s boyfriend) and didn’t warm to Breckin Meyer at all, but I never do (see Road Trip and Kate and Leopold) and he’s by no means awful here.
So why doesn’t Clueless get an ‘A’ grade? Well, mainly because it doesn’t have the humility to name Emma or Austen as its inspiration (even in the ‘Thanks’ credits), which is just rude. The movie is also undeniably featherweight fluff; and while this is sometimes exactly what you want as a moviegoer, it does mean that it’s never going to be thought of as high art.
Moreover, while this isn’t strictly the movie’s fault, its legacy and influence hasn’t been entirely positive. Many filmmakers have failed to grasp the point of Clueless, that Cher has to realise how selfish and interfering she has been – and have instead concentrated on the superficial: the clothes, the make-up, the hair. As a result, you move from Cher to Elle Woods’ forty hairstyles to Elle’s dreadful sequel, and before you know it you’re at The Hottie and the Nottie.
Finally, it’s worth noting that unlike ‘safe’ films like A Cinderella Story or The Princess Diaries, Clueless is a knowing comedy for teenagers and up. The references to sex and drugs feel a smidgen racy for a 12 certificate, though they’re dealt with in a straightforward way and – while I’m not sure if this helps or not – most of the cast are way older than their supposed ages (Rudd’s in his mid-20s, Silverstone 18; and though it wouldn’t be polite to mention Stacey Dash’s age, look it up and be amazed).
As I’ve said before about similar movies, I’m not the target audience for Clueless, but I was surprised how much fun it was to watch, and look forward to doing so again when I’m next in the mood for colourful, brainless entertainment. It’s certainly more fun than Doug McGrath’s Emma – though that does have the decency to name Miss Austen as its source!
NOTES: I am perfectly happy to be told otherwise.