Tasha: Watching Clueless today, it’s easy to lose the storyline from time to time while being surprised at all the famous faces, especially the ones in their larval stages. This is reportedly one of the rare movies where the teen cast members mostly were actual teenagers—Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy were 18, and even the “older” school kids, Donald Faison, Jeremy Sisto, and Breckin Meyer, were just 21. For me, the biggest surprise was seeing Paul Rudd in his mid-20s, looking not hugely different from the way he looks now in his mid-40s, but with a touch of baby-face; still, it’s more than a little strange, given the weathered-weary-asshole roles he likes these days, to see him romancing an 18-year-old in this film. The celebrity lineup doesn’t end there: Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan as the nerd-romance teachers, Julie Brown, Stacey Dash, Dan Hedaya: It’s the kind of cast “Where are they now?” segments were made for.
Noel: Rudd to me is the standout of the group, because he still looks so much like the guy he’s supposed to be in the film: a somewhat douchey college boy with snobby musical tastes. (He reminds me of myself, basically. I covet that 688 Records T-shirt.) Aside from the incipient 1990s goatee in one early scene, Rudd could travel through time to one of his Judd Apatow movies, and he’d still fit in.
Nathan: Rudd’s performance is all the more remarkable considering that on paper, his character Josh is kind of a creepy jerk. He’s a dour, wisecracking, sarcastic slacker who embodies a weird, not particularly palatable combination of cynicism (everything sucks) and idealism (except for the environment)—and his big moment occurs when he realizes he wants to sleep with his hot, underage semi-stepsister. Yet Rudd makes the character charming and adorable all the same; some of my favorite moments in the film are the cutaway shots to his character smiling a big, adorable smile as he delights in protagonist Cher (Silverstone). I kind of want these two crazy kids to be together forever, which is all the more remarkable considering what rich, privileged, pampered, quasi-incestuous brats they’d be in any other teen comedy.
Also, how wonderful is Silverstone here? And how fantastic is her chemistry with Dash? The two young actresses play off each other with the wit and dexterity of characters in a screwball comedy. It’s just a shame Dash wasn’t given more opportunities to display her gifts as a comedian, outside of the surprisingly venerable Clueless TV show, which Heckerling had a big hand in.
Genevieve: One of my favorite aspects of Silverstone’s performance—which places her firmly in “lifetime pass” territory for me—is the collection of squeaks and huffs she uses to punctuate her lines when Cher is especially worked up. It’s the perfect teenage affectation, equal parts obnoxious and cute, which is pretty much Cher in a nutshell. It also adds to the singular sound of the movie, which is as much about intonation as the lines themselves. Clueless is endlessly quotable, but much of that quote value is embedded in the actors’ singular delivery.
I also have to give it up for Cher’s debate classmates, particularly Elton (Sisto), a perfect example of the sort of immature maturity that defines the students of Bronson Alcott High. (Or, as Cher’s protégée Tai (Murphy) puts it, “Wow, you guys talk like grown-ups.”) One of my favorite recurring gags in Clueless is Elton’s absolute confidence in his paper-thin excuses to leave class (”My foot hurts, can I go to the nurse?”), and Sisto is just perfect at capturing that thinks-his-shit-don’t-stink smarm.
Matt: I love Silverstone and Rudd together. They have really great chemistry, whether they’re picking on or flirting with each other. Their embrace in the final shot of the movie, complete with Silverstone’s huge smile and little hops of delight, is one for the Movie Kiss Hall Of Fame. I wouldn’t want a Clueless sequel, but I’d absolutely be interested in another movie starring Rudd and Silverstone. It’s kind of surprising that hasn’t happened yet, given people’s affection for this movie.
Affection is the right word, too; Clueless is so damn lovable. There’s no villain, unless you count Elton; there’s no conflict, except maybe that one paralegal who yells at Cher for screwing up some depositions. It’s really about just enjoying some time with all these crazy but charming characters. I rewatch this movie over and over because it’s fun hanging out in this world.
Nathan: Clueless accomplishes the formidable feat of making me root for the kind of popular, proudly superficial, image-obsessed cool kids who would be the villains of any other teen movie. Cher and her cohorts are like the mean girls of Mean Girls, only they use their popularity and genius for picking outfits for good, not evil.
Tasha: Wellllll… let’s not go entirely overboard here. Yes, they aren’t using their powers to lord their status over everyone else, or destroy other people’s high-school experiences. But like Emma in Jane Austen’s Emma, which Clueless loosely adapts, Cher is serving her own perky, interfering ego more than she’s serving the greater good. She’s never a villain, but she’s a paper-thin hero, whether she’s giving her no-research, no-thought, all-good-intentions speech on behalf of the Haiti-ans, or trying to force two of her friends to date each other. Just as Rudd deserves big-ups for turning his tiresome college-student scold into an approachable nice guy, Silverstone deserves a lot of credit for making Cher seem charming, even though she’s a ditzy, naïve, hugely spoiled, immensely entitled girl who keeps interfering in other people’s lives because she likes how generous her fantasies of fixing everyone’s problems make her feel.
Scott: I second Genevieve’s what-ever. Cher needs a starting point for her journey in this film from spoiled rich kid who meddles in other people’s lives for her own benefit to spoiled rich kid who learns to affect people’s lives in a positive, generous way—even if she’s still a little clueless about disaster victims needing sporting equipment. But we’re talking about the cast here, and Silverstone is completely winning from scene one, when she laughs about how the sequence we’re seeing makes her life look like a Noxzema commercial. Cher is the audience’s project as much as Tai is Cher’s project: Viewers can see her potential for kindness and generosity, and stay with her until she reaches that potential—and Silverstone’s performance makes that easy. Genevieve mentioned her little squeaks; I think the defining squeak for me is when she sideswipes another car during her driving test, scrunches up her face, and says, “Oops, should I leave a note?” She makes a lot of mistakes, but at least she says “Oops.”
On the “Where are they now?” casting front, Stacey Dash has re-emerged in a big way on the political scene during the last election season, when she endorsed Mitt Romney and expressed regret for voting for Obama in 2008 “because he was black.” So there’s a second career for you.
Noel: That potential is the key to the character, Scott. She just wants to help! It’s a tricky balance that Silverstone has to strike as Cher, playing her as ditzy, yet confidently aware of certain useful facts about cliques, drugs, fashion, and boys. For example, did you know that cleavage “reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex”? That’s a thing Cher knows and shares. And she isn’t wrong. Shallow, but not wrong.
Scott: Tasha mentioned that Clueless was loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, and the inspiration doesn’t end with the concept of the young heroine playing matchmaker. As in Austen’s world, the high-school world of Clueless has its own intricate set of rules and codes, and the characters must abide by them or be punished. Some of the film is boilerplate high-school clique material: It seems like every movie of this kind has a sequence where we’re told that this is where the geeks hang out, and those are the stoners, and here are the popular kids. But one of the things I liked about Clueless is Cher’s hyper-awareness of her own popularity, to the point where she treats it like currency, worth spending on projects like Tai, but perhaps not worth squandering on dating high-school boys, or getting stoned, except at the occasional party. Elton knows it, too, and naturally assumes he and Cher “make sense” together, where he and the more rough-and-tumble Tai do not. Part of what makes the ending so happy is that Cher is able to break the laws she was so conscious about abiding and enforcing. She’s precocious in that way: Most of us don’t manage to do that until college.
Tasha: I originally thought Clueless’ social dynamics were mostly derived from leftover Austen, but thinking about it a bit, the film’s exasperating/adorable aspects come more directly from the traditional social mores of girls in general, the awkwardness of high school, and the need for the kind of narrative contrivances that make plot happen. The big hangup is the assumption that the guys have to make the first move, and the girls have decided their job is to create tempting targets, then hang back and hope. Heaven forfend that Tai tell Elton she likes him, and risk getting shot down; heaven equally forfend that Cher admit to Christian (Justin Walker) that she’s ready to lose her virginity, and hopes he’ll take the job. (That way lies the humiliation and inexplicable obsession of Nymphomaniac.) There’s a lot of realism to the way these otherwise bold, confident young ladies turn into coquettish intrigue artists when it comes to drawing a guy’s attention, but boy, did that intensely awkward would-be deflowering scene make me glad to be out of high school, and the era when it was socially unacceptable for a girl to say “Hey, I like you. Any interest?” Then again, Josh can’t admit he likes the clueless Cher either. Given that he’s in college, and a dude, that probably has more to do with his discomfort at the thought of dating his younger, clearly naïve and virginal stepsister, which is another kind of social more altogether.
Noel: I love how we talk about the high school mores of Clueless as though the movie’s version of high school is remotely realistic—or, even if it is realistic, as though any of us know what it’s like to go to a school where everybody drives sports cars. It’s so easy to buy into the fantasy of these high-school movies, and to treat their elaborate social systems as reasonable (and in Clueless’ case, to treat the subversion of those systems as radical). What I love about Clueless is that in keeping with Cher’s generally sunny disposition, the movie doesn’t try to pretend its high-school milieu is anything other than awesome, even with all the gossip and cliques. That’s also similar to Austen, whose stories are very class-conscious, but between families who can afford to employ servants. The lowliest kids at Cher’s school are, by and large, still pretty well-off.
Genevieve: Tasha, you home in on the immaturity and awkwardness of these romantic interactions, which is worth unpacking. It’s important to remember these girls are 15, even if they do “talk like grown-ups.” Most, if not all, of their awareness of what the opposite sex desires probably comes from gossip and ladies’ magazines—not for nothing, Cher’s list of instructions for getting boys to notice you might as well be straight out of Cosmo Girl. (This is a neat mirror of Austen’s day, when the sexes were so separated socially that the particulars of romance and relationships had to be addressed obliquely, if at all.) Cher uses her disdain for the boys of her generation to mask the fact that she doesn’t really understand them at all. She projects such an air of confidence and competence in every aspect of her life, including things she knows nothing about, that it’s easy to forget that she really is just a virgin who can’t drive.
Tasha: Really? Not for me. I think what makes Clueless interesting is that it never lets the audience forget that Cher is a ditzy, clueless young thing. The script is constantly, constantly taking digs at her dimwittedness and entitlement, even when it’s portraying her positively and sympathetically. She isn’t exceptionally dim or entitled—she lives in the modern equivalent of Austen’s bored British aristocrat society, and the mores of her are all closely focused on shopping, getting massages and makeovers, and gossiping about who’s jeepin’. She is exceptional among her peers for her goodwill and openness, but maturity and intellect? This is a girl who pauses in the middle of a life-changing self-realization to peek in a store window and think, “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size?”
Nathan: But part of what I love about Clueless is that for a movie about a precocious 15-year-old know-it-all, it’s remarkably non-judgmental; it rations sympathy across the social spectrum. As previously noted, there are no real heroes or villains in Clueless. (With the possible exception of Elton, who’s more a typically horny teenage jerk than a proper heavy.) The characters are just a bunch of folks honestly trying to navigate the incredibly complicated ecosystem of high school (both teenaged and adult), and for the most part failing honorably.
Nathan: Clueless delights in language, but like its protagonist, it prefers to Trojan-horse its fierce intelligence and raging verbosity inside a pink, frilly façade of just-a-girl ditziness. Amy Heckerling’s wonderful screenplay is particularly smart in the way it employs slang; I’m thinking particularly of Murray (Faison) presenting his surprisingly academic defense of calling his girlfriend Dionne (Dash) “woman.” That’s one of the only moments when the film tips its hand as to just how smart it is. Otherwise, its highbrow understanding of lowbrow vernacular emerges in wonderfully organic and unexpected ways, like Tai’s sadness upon hearing “Rollin’ With My Homies’”; the juxtaposition of genuine, aching sadness and a Coolio concoction is just what makes Clueless so sly and inspired. I also appreciate that the film understands that not all forms of slang are the same; though they overlap, there are substantial differences in Valley-speak, stoner-slang, hip-hop vernacular, and the crunchy terminology of the granola, lefty crowd, and the film acknowledges and comments on those differences in smart ways. What are some of your favorite lines and moments in this eminently quotable film?
Tasha: I’m pretty fond of the classification of pretty women as “Betties” and not-up-to-snuff men as “Barnies,” for several reasons: First off, the character design in The Flintstones is so simple and abstract that it’s hilarious to me that people would decide Betty is hot and could do better than Barney, given that they’re both such unrealistic scrawls. But second, “Betty” is such a packed term for a sexy lady. Pairing it with “Barney” definitively underlines The Flintstones as the origin point, but I’ve seen people online insisting that the derivation comes from Archie Comics, so a Betty is an attractive but wholesome girl who might be undeservedly overlooked. And I’ve seen people insisting it comes from Betty Boop—another cartoon hottie with a (literal) dog of a boyfriend. But the first time I heard it in Clueless, I assumed it referred back to Betty Page. Why are there so many striking pop-culture Betties?
Still, Murray accusing Dionne of “jeepin’” is my absolute favorite bit of language in Clueless, both because it sounds like real slang, and because it’s apparently such a freshly developed or imported term that even Dionne and Cher don’t know what it means, and repeat it several times. Plenty of movies wind up dated because they attempt to stiffly incorporate current teen slang, but few films ever show how fast that slang evolves, or tap into that familiar moment when someone encounters, and immediately adopts, the new word of the moment.
Scott: I tend to resist the word “dated,” but one way a slang-filled movie can protect itself from such a charge is to make up its own language, removed from the trends of its time. Heckerling’s stylized dialogue is not only unique to Clueless, but it helps underline the insularity of Cher’s world, and the difficulty she has in getting any perspective on the outside. (Her take on immigration is typically blinkered-yet-generous: “And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haiti-ans.”) I’d also like to put in a word for Heckerling’s Borscht Belt one-liners, which are the lifeblood of her recent, underrated Silverstone reunion comedy Vamps, but get some play here, too. (“Miss Stoeger, my plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.” “Well, there goes your social life.”)
Genevieve: As I previously mentioned, for me a lot of Clueless’ quotability is tied up in the actors’ delivery: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive!” is equal parts way-harsh and adorably impotent coming out of Murphy’s pouting mouth, and that “party with the Haiti-ans” malapropism is all Alicia Silverstone’s doing. (She mispronounced the word on set, and Heckerling, displaying her canny aptitude for teen-talk, made sure no one corrected her.) When the film first came out, people seemed to fixate on Clueless’ semi-invented slang—your “Whatevers” and “As ifs!”—to the extent that I remember a “Clueless Glossary” poster for sale at my local Sam Goody, with bubble-letter, candy-colored definitions of terms like “Monet” and “Surfing the crimson wave.” But I’ve always been more enamored of the dialogue than the highlighted words—particularly between Cher and her ever-hollering dad Mel (Dan Hedaya), whose simpatico-yet-totally-different communication styles link them as relatives across two very different generations.
Matt: I never saw the Clueless glossary at Sam Goody, but the dialogue quickly wormed its way into my high school’s vernacular anyway—and this was in suburban New Jersey, thousands of miles from its origins in Beverly Hills. “As if” was a common refrain in the halls, and attractive women were widely referred to as “Betties.” (As a clueless nerd, I was not cool enough to know whether anyone in school was “jeepin’.”) Nathan mentioned Cher’s intelligence beneath a façade of ditziness, and I agree: The same way Tai is in awe of Cher, my peers and I were similarly dazzled by this funny, quirkily eloquent girl. Even after we stole a couple of Clueless’ more famous expressions, we never really talked like its characters. But we absolutely wished we did.
Matt: From Cher “saving herself” for Luke Perry from 90210 to the random Forrest Gump joke to Beavis And Butt-head making a cameo on Cher’s TV to the cameo appearance by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in the party scene (and the state of the soundtrack in general) to every ridiculous thing the characters wear, Clueless is like a time capsule of the mid-1990s. Scott already brought up the word “dated,” and I suppose that’s one way to describe the film; certainly every single person (and every single costume) dates this movie to California circa 1995. But I see it more positively. If Clueless is dated, it’s only because it so perfectly captured its setting. Clueless is like the Jurassic Park mosquito in amber of 1990s teen culture. It shall be preserved here for future generations to study for the rest of eternity. Please don’t laugh at our hair too much.
Nathan: I too dislike the term “dated”; all it really means is that a film feels like the product of its time, and I often find that to be a really wonderful quality; I know Noel in particular savors films both as works of art and entertainment, and also as priceless sociological documents. Clueless is a glorious slice of California circa 1995; heaven knows it took me back, in part because I was around the same age as the characters, and I will always remember dressing up as Church Of The Subgenius mascot Bob Dobbs to see The Mighty Mighty Bosstones perform at my college’s big Halloween bash, so when the Bosstones popped up in Clueless, I felt like I was having an acid flashback. Actually, the whole film felt like that in the best possible way. I was certainly struck with a desire to immediately download the soundtrack, although for the sake of authenticity, I really should try to track down the final Sam Goody’s and buy a copy on CD, along with a really rocking Evan Dando and/or Julianna Hatfield poster.
Noel: Nathan, you’re right that I’m drawn to Clueless as a document of that brief sliver of time when having a character who’s really into neo-swing wouldn’t seem weird. But I remember being drawn to Clueless almost as much as a throwback to 1980s high-school comedies, like John Hughes’ films, or Heckerling’s own Fast Times At Ridgemont High. By which I mean: There’s a timelessness to films about youth culture, stretching back to the rocksploitation and beach-party movies of the early 1960s, and all the way back to the college-campus musicals of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. (Both versions of Good News are kind of the Clueless of their days.) No matter the era, kids are worried about grades, on the prowl for mates, and far more concerned with social values than their judgmental elders seem to believe.
That said, I can’t deny that Clueless gets better with age in large part because of its dated qualities, which add a layer of poignancy. Remember when everybody having a cell phone in a movie was a sign that they were insanely privileged? Ah, the 1990s.
Genevieve: I think another, somewhat paradoxical reason for Clueless’ strange timelessness is how heightened its 1990s-ness is. We recognize the way these characters dress, talk, and act as reflective of mid-’90s trends, but they’re not exactly realistic depictions of the average teenager in 1995. (I think? I was barely a teenager when this movie came out, and nowhere near the privileged sphere of these characters, but Cher and her cohorts never scanned as “peers” to me.) Consequently, Clueless—like many other teen/youth movies, as Noel notes—exists in its own world, one that looks sort of like ours, but never really ages or changes. It’s sort of like Cher’s house, with its columns out of the 1970s: classic, even if certain elements only date back a couple of decades.
Nathan: Totally. Clueless embraces the frothy frivolity of its time. Looking back, it’s kind of the perfect teen movie for the Clinton decade, when the economy was booming, we inexplicably weren’t constantly at war, and the world seemed safe and secure enough to embrace the silliness and shameless materialism at Clueless’ core. But it also understands its place in the teen-movie pantheon as the spiritual successor to teen beach-party movies, Valley Girl, and other largely angst-free explorations of what it’s like to be young and full of pep.
Scott: While we were watching Clueless in the screening room, Tasha quipped, in the middle of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones performance, that we could narrow down when the movie was shot to a six-month period. The 1995 aspects allow us to engage in a little cultural anthropology—cell phones as a sign of privilege then are an absolute necessity now, and we’re dozens of fads removed from neo-swing, which hasn’t had its revivalist revival yet—but the film is old enough to assess from enough of a distance to guess safely that it will continue to work well into the future. Time has been kind.
Tasha: It helps that Heckerling seems to have been entirely conscious that she was making a time capsule for the future. That Mighty Mighty Bosstones performance (Essentially, “Now we will loudly perform the choruses of both our big hits for you, in between plot-significant scenes”) makes me laugh every time I watch the movie, because it’s so era-specific, but it also feels more like artificial product placement than like organic recognition or incorporation of something that was cool at the time. Some of the references do feel more organic because they aren’t heavily underlined, like Cher knowing Hamlet better than the pretentious college girl quoting it, because Cher watched the 1990 Mel Gibson movie. But most of the drop-ins feel so conscious and removed from the narrative—like Cher watching Ren & Stimpy and informing Josh that it’s “way existential,” or catching Tai singing along to a Mentos “Freshmaker” ad—that they feel to me like Heckerling storing up nuts for the future, to remind us what pop culture was like way back in the olden days.
Noel: Clueless’ structure is unusual for a high-school comedy, because in addition to matching the plot to Austen’s Emma, Heckerling retooled her original idea for the project, which was to make it a TV sitcom. To some extent, the movie plays like a a few TV episodes stitched together, in that new plotlines are introduced and/or wrapped up with unusual regularity and fleetness. And that makes a difference, I think, because too many high-school movies in the 1990s relied on corny romantic-comedy gimmicks, and stripped down the plot and the characters to accommodate them. Clueless, by contrast, feels full.
Genevieve: Cher’s pursuit of flaming “cake boy” Christian is pretty funny because it hinges on so many gay stereotypes, but what I like most about it is the fact that Cher and Christian become friends after her failed seduction. And while Cher and Dionne are shocked by Murray’s reveal of Christian’s orientation, none of them, Murray included, seem disturbed by the fact that he’s gay. Christian’s popularity doesn’t seem to take any sort of hit from the revelation, and his sexuality is never mentioned again, because it doesn’t matter to the story, but also because it doesn’t really matter to anyone in the story. It’s just another small example of the fundamental good-naturedness that makes the film so winning.
Matt: I loved this movie when I was 15, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to hold up all these years later. I was really happy to find it stands the test of time. It’s irreverent, but not mean; it pokes fun at its characters and their lifestyles, but has a tremendous amount of affection for them as well. If anything about the film frustrates me, it’s that Silverstone’s career never quite lived up to her potential here. She’s like a Heisman Trophy winner who never made it in the NFL; she had all this talent, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t quite take full advantage of it. True, her post-Clueless projects were mostly terrible, but she’s so charming here. It’s hard to believe she didn’t become a major Hollywood star.
Nathan: I happened to catch part of Legally Blonde on cable a few nights back, and it struck me that the film was a direct, unofficial sequel/knockoff of Clueless, right down to the fascination with the law. In that respect, it seems like Reese Witherspoon is having the career Silverstone should have had. It doesn’t hurt that Witherspoon is a much better actress and that her range is much broader than Silverstone’s, but I would like to live in a world that had thriving careers for Witherspoon and Silverstone both. It’s just a shame that good roles for actresses of any age are so dreadfully short these days.
Yesterday, Genevieve Koski kicked off our Movie Of The Week discussion of Clueless with her Keynote on the “way normal” life of Cher Horowitz. And tomorrow, Tasha Robinson wraps up with a look at Austen’s Emma, the 1996 adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and how all three versions of the story have different takes on artificiality and comedy.