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Film Review: Clueless

Clueless (1995; Directed by Amy Heckerling)

Amy Heckerling is not only a rarity in one way – she’s a successful female director in Hollywood – but in another, much larger way: she’s defined two separate eras of American youth culture on comedic film. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the 1980s high school flick (not made by John Hughes), partly because it balances a mature perspective on the trials and tribulations of high-schoolers with an enlightened lack of condescension. And, of course, it’s pretty funny, although Cameron Crowe’s script certainly didn’t hurt that aspect.


But Clueless, for all of its focus on the superficial Los Angeleno gloss of its hyperbolic characters, is a smarter film and a more subtly cutting-edge one. Even by the decade’s halfway point marked by neatly this film, the 1990s were a floating free-formation without cultural definition. Grunge burned out instead of fading away, hip hop was not yet ascendant, fashions were lost in the wilderness, and cell phones were hardly ubiquitous features of the nation’s youth. By the end of the decade, most of the young people in North America looked, sounded and acted like one of more of the characters in this breezy little teen comedy.

Clueless didn’t create the ’90s, of course. That would be giving the film a bit too much credit. But it certainly crystallized the surface tensions of the culture into a shiny pink gem, sparkling with the dominant concerns of the day: class, consumerism, litigation snowballs, gender roles, social status, cliques, political activism, sexual mores, and so on. When future generations seek to understand the 1990s, this movie is a time capsule which will prove invaluable for consultation purposes.

That Clueless manages to be a statement on its time while adapting a classic novel written almost two hundred years before is a statement to the prodigious agility of Heckerling’s script. It easily transposes Jane Austen’s plot of matchmaking gone wrong and love eventually gone right to a modern setting. But Heckerling also crafts effortlessly witty dialogue, which flows off the tongues of her talented young cast like snatches of catchy pop music. And unlike its well-loved contemporary 10 Things I Hate About You, with its archly self-satisfied Bard references, Clueless doesn’t ram its clever literary undercurrent down your throat. It prefers to let the referentiality unfold with unhurried amusement.

Heckerling’s direction can leave a little to be desired, to be sure, although her transformation of an accidental turn onto a freeway into a horror film sequence is a solid genre joke. But when her camera-wrangling stumbles, the nimbleness of the screenplay saves her every time. Add to this the appeal of referring to the characters by the names of their counterparts from Emma (Paul Rudd smiles shyly: “Oh, Mr. Knightley!”), and you’ve got a delicious confectionary pleasure that leaves you surprisingly full afterwards.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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