Published on July 19th, 1995 | by Padraic Coffey0
Although the self-styled ‘teen movie’ has never suffered a major dip in prominence on the American film scene – teenagers comprising a sizeable portion of every Hollywood studio’s target market, after all – there had been something of a lull in depictions of adolescence in the early 1990s, following John Hughes’ dominance of the subgenre in the 1980s. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless led not only to a revival of this movement, but proved itself smarter, funnier and less self-conscious than most of what had come before, including the majority of Hughes’ output. The film’s deceptively ditzy exterior is in fact a subterfuge to disguise its more literary qualities. While its characters are seen reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and William S Burroughs, the fact that Heckerling’s screenplay borrows its skeletal structure from Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma – rather cheekily, without an onscreen credit – was perhaps its most influential feature, without which it is unlikely we would have seen such modernised retellings of classical texts as 10 Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) and Cruel Intentions (Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses).
Clueless centres around Cher (Alicia Silverstone) who, like the eponymous character in Austen’s text, is a young woman of privilege living in a motherless home, too wrapped up in the affairs of others, particularly those with whom she attempts to play matchmaker, to notice the lack of romance in her own life. Clueless transports Austen’s Nineteenth-Century English setting to the Los Angeles of contemporary times, with Cher attending a upper-class high school alongside best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) and new arrival Tai (Brittany Murphy). It takes special skill to present such affluence on screen, all post-Rhinoplasty bandages and uncommonly slender (for 1995) cell-phones, without incensing most cinematic audiences. That Clueless succeeds in doing so is down to Silverstone’s charmingly naive performance. She is ably supported by Dash and Murphy, as well as Paul Rudd playing Cher’s quasi-stepbrother who, in almost twenty years since the film was first released, seems to have aged not a jot.
It is also down to Heckerling’s witty screenplay which acknowledges the inherent absurdity of its characters’ lifestyles and attire, particularly the appearance of Cher’s ‘frenemy’ Amber (Elisa Donovan), whose increasingly outlandish outfits are a source of much mirth. Necessarily paring down Austen’s text to its bare bones, Clueless moves at a lightning-pace, in keeping with the aesthetic of MTV-inspired 1990s cinema, though pausing on occasion to offer humorous interjections. After an opening montage accompanied by The Muffs’ cover of Kim Wilde’s iconic Kids in America, Cher’s voiceover narration chimes, “You’re probably thinking, is this, like, a Noxema commercial, or what?”. It is no surprise that the film led to a successful TV spin-off. The choice of a British song (albeit performed by Americans) to open the film is one aspect Clueless shares with the work of John Hughes. Its soundtrack weighs heavily on the European side of the Atlantic, featuring the Lightning Seeds, Supergrass and two tracks by Radiohead (whom Cher describes as ‘complaint rock’).
Two decades on, Clueless has aged surprisingly well (though Cher’s casual use of the word ‘retard’ does make one’s hair bristle). Its humour ranges from an array of quotable soundbites to hilariously incongruous moments, such as the impromptu speech given by slacker Travis (Breckin Meyer) upon learning he has accumulated the most ‘tardy slips’. Like its central protagonist, it may appear vacuous on the surface, but beneath there lies much to be valued.