*. Clueless stands, I think, as one of the best teen romantic comedies ever made. No, I am not a fan of teen romantic comedies. So yes, this is light praise. The thing is, there are few other teen romantic comedies I like at all. I have fond memories of Valley Girl, but it’s been decades since I’ve seen it. 10 Things I Hate About You also comes to mind. But I think I enjoy Clueless more. It’s intelligent, light on its feet, witty, and even goodhearted in an absolutely harmless sort of way.
*. So what happened? What happened to Alicia Silverstone? When I saw her first in The Crush (1993) I immediately felt I was witnessing the debut of a major talent (albeit in a not-very-good picture). Then in Clueless she became a bona fide star. But after that? Batman & Robin? Was that a career killer? After that there were mostly bit parts, not all of them in notable movies. I’d so completely lost track of her that I remember being surprised seeing her show up in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (in another marginal role).
*. But an even more remarkable disappearing act was pulled by writer-director Amy Heckerling. She’d had a hit debut directing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and went on to have some success with crap like European Vacation, Look Who’s Talking, and Look Who’s Talking Too. Nothing to make you think something as good as Clueless was coming. But then, nothing that came after Clueless struck gold either. In the twenty-first century she seemed to migrate to television.
*. I find this hard to explain, because I think both Heckerling and Silverstone are very talented. They didn’t catch lightning in a bottle with Clueless. And yet there was no second act. Yes, there were a ton of Clueless spin-offs, including a TV series, but I mean career-wise for these two. I know the film business in the twenty-first century has been brutal, squeezing the indies especially hard (or really any movies that aren’t sequels or about superheroes), but still I would have thought we’d have had something more from Heckerling and Silverstone.
*. Like 10 Things I Hate About You there was a literary precedent. The Taming of the Shrew in the case of the later movie, and Jane Austen’s novel Emma here. Emma is a long novel, and adapting it presented some real challenges that I think Heckerling expertly met. I also think Silverstone pulled off the difficult task of making Cher Horowitz (Emma Woodhouse) likeable despite being a snob, “manipulative, but in a nice way” (Heckerling), and (what’s most challenging) intelligent and a ditz at the same time, without the ditziness coming across as any kind of act.
*. Some of the changes make sense. They had to do something with Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse, since such a whiny valetudinarian wouldn’t fly in the modern world. Or if he did, he’d be even more intolerable than he is in the novel. But I’m still a bit mystified at making Mr. Knightley into Emma’s sort-of step-sibling Josh (Paul Rudd, already showing the slightest shadow of his later trademark rakish stubble).
*. As I understand it, Josh is the son of one of Mr. Horowitz’s previous wives, so he’s no blood relation to Cher. But I had a hard time keeping that straight, and the whole dynamic here just felt creepy in a Woody and Soon-Yi sort of way. It’s legal, but it’s a lot closer to Kentucky (as Cher would have it) than I think our heroine would want to admit. So I’m not sure why Heckerling went this route. Why not just make Josh a neighbour? I realize there’s a connection in this respect to Emma, but in the book the step-sibling connection between Mr. Knightley and Emma is a lot clearer (and less weird).
*. In most ways it’s true to the spirit of Emma, but doesn’t address the class issues of Austen’s novel at all. Because class is a “forbidden subject” (adopting Paul Fussell’s expert phrase) in America? Though there are social cliques at the Beverly Hills high school Cher attends, everyone goes to the same parties and we assume the kids are all from wealthy families. So it’s not like Cher is on an entirely different level, as Emma is.
*. Heckerling did research by sitting in on some high school classes, but I didn’t buy Cher’s excuse to her teacher for being tardy because she was “surfing the crimson wave.” Would a teenage girl actually say that to a teacher in the ’90s, in class? It didn’t seem authentic to me.
*. Then again, this isn’t the high school I attended. Or that anyone attended, really. Heckerling admits it was a fantasy. It works though because of Silverstone and because it’s all so smooth and sweet. I can’t think of a scene that’s out of place or that slows the pace. There are laughs and smiles aplenty tossed off like wrappers from a candy bar being thrown from a car. And romance too, of the ephemeral, dreamy kind. The only cloud on the horizon is the thought of growing up and the party coming to an end.