At the beginning of Clueless, our heroine, the 15-year-old 90210 princess Cher (Alicia Silverstone), selects her day’s outfit from the graphics on a computer screen, which not only shows her what matches but how each outfit will look on her. It’s as if this powerful technology existed only to help Cher look fabulous for school. (We never see her use the computer for anything else.) Clueless, the best light-as-air teen comedy in ages, is full of little spins like that, and when I wasn’t laughing I was at least smiling. The writer-director, Amy Heckerling, who’s 41 now, made her debut with the preternaturally charming Fast Times at Ridgemont High; she still hasn’t lost touch with what makes mall-rats tick, even if some of the jargon in Clueless is dated. (On Fast Times, Heckerling had help from Cameron Crowe.)
Amy Heckerling’s gift as a director — which can’t be faked, and which is in short supply in current American movies — is a deep affection for her subjects. She may aim satirical arrows at Cher and her bubbly friends, but the arrows have suction cups on their tips. Heckerling doesn’t skewer these kids for who they are; she sees the unconscious (almost preconscious) humor in their indomitable cluelessness. (The movie’s deadpan irony about its own giddy, pastel inconsequentiality is what The Brady Bunch Movie tried for and missed.) Without Heckerling’s gentle amusement, the movie would either be a straight glorification of airheads (like most of Fast Times‘ rip-offs) or a bitter spray of venom like Heathers, which, in its refusal to acknowledge the humanity in the Heathers or the jocks, wasn’t half as clever or original as it thought it was. Put it this way: I couldn’t stand kids like Cher in high school, but Heckerling (and Silverstone) won me over, whereas Heathers merely pandered to my adolescent anti-prom streak.
Alicia Silverstone didn’t much impress me in her debut, as the lethal Lolita in the inept The Crush (1993), where she tried to be diabolical but was just pouty and amateurish. I skipped her next feature (Hideaway) and somehow missed her famous Aerosmith videos, so I can’t say whether her fine comic touch in Clueless is part of a gradual advance, or a quantum leap, or (as I suspect) more a matter of her performing within her range. She has wonderful eyebrows that curl up in puzzlement or romantic anguish, and she gives Cher (who’s still a virgin) an appealing imperviousness. Cher is just as forthright with her gruff but harmless dad (Dan Hedaya) as she is with a bland hunk who makes a move on her. And she won’t be swayed by peer pressure; Cher, the most popular girl at school, is above peer pressure — she sets the standards.
Heckerling has assembled a terrific supporting cast. When Cher takes the podium in debate class and holds forth on how we should make room for Haitian refugees because “there’s no RSVP on the Statue of Liberty,” the scene is funny, but Wallace Shawn, as the teacher, turns it into a classic with his stupefied “Have we fallen this far?” expression. Stacey Dash has some fresh moments as Cher’s best friend Dionne, who yells at her goofy boyfriend but also has a warm rapport with him “when nobody’s looking.” As the new girl Tai, who becomes Cher’s makeover “project,” Brittany Murphy could be Marisa Tomei’s stoned baby sister; she has a natural rhythm, as if her lines had just popped into her head and surprised her.
The male-written Fast Times took a dimmer view of guys than Clueless does, perhaps because Cameron Crowe was privy to guys’ crude talk about girls. Heckerling gives guys their due. As the smooth Christian, whom Cher has a crush on, Justin Walker has a great bit when he politely escorts Cher to a dance, only to forget about her when he spots a cute guy to dance with. (Cher takes this revelation in stride — Christian becomes a cool guy to shop with.) The real find may be Paul Rudd as Cher’s stepbrother Josh, who listens to “complaint rock” (his theme song is Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”), pores over Nietzsche, and spars good-naturedly with Cher. Rudd is the spokesperson for those in the audience who find Cher appealing but mildly ridiculous, and he’s very winning. Heckerling handles her young cast with a light, easy touch; watching them, you remember what a great ensemble Fast Times had. (Clueless has its own Jeff Spicoli, a stoner skateboarder who serves as a relaxed and inadvertent counterpoint to the stoner skateboarders in Kids. This being the ’90s, the stoner becomes a twelve-stepper.)
Back in 1982, the sexual frankness of Fast Times upset a lot of (adult) critics — in some surface ways, it was the Kids of its day. The scene in which Phoebe Cates instructed Jennifer Jason Leigh in matters of fellatio (“Don’t bite”) said more than a thousand sociological studies: Those kids, with precious little guidance at home, had to steer each other (and themselves) past the pitfalls of budding sexuality. Neither Fast Times nor Clueless turn adults into cartoon ogres (a key point of departure between Heckerling and the perpetually snotty John Hughes), but they do recognize that the financial realities of the last quarter-century have left kids almost entirely to their own devices. Larry Clark paints this adultless world as an apocalypse of immorality and irresponsibility; Heckerling is more sanguine. She knows most kids stumble and fall, but also help each other up and generally turn out okay.
Clueless is softer than Fast Times. There’s no hellish-devirginizing scene, no abortion, not much in the way of drugs (Cher takes a few hits of weed but believes in moderation); it’s essentially asexual. What Heckerling achieves in Clueless is a self-contained fantasyland full of colorful, smartly observed people, who, for all their pastel poppiness, are more real to us than the human wreckage in Kids. Heckerling is a real director, and her best movies are comedies of companionship and kindness. Clueless is a happy bubble, and Alicia Silverstone comes into her own as a confident young comedienne. She never pushes you to like her; you just do. The same is true of the movie.