B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
THERE ARE FEW among us who have looked at the poster for Clueless and found ourselves responding with, "Gee, this movie looks terrific!" And no wonder: The idea of a movie about cellular phone-toting high-school girls in knee-high socks doesn't exactly start one's fingers itching to hand out $7.50 at the cineplex. Who wants to spend an hour and a half listening to women talk like hybrids of Moon Unit Zappa and Joan Rivers anyway? I mean, that's like so Eighties.
Well, surprise--Clueless is one of the sharpest, funniest pictures of the summer. In a season when Stallone saves the future via special effects, Bruce Willis saves the present via big-budget stunts and Pocahontas saves the past via state-of-the-art animation, this little film about a beauty queen (Alicia Silverstone) who saves a few social lives via makeovers blows them all away.
Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, whose other credits include Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Look Who's Talking, Clueless is the kind of film that keeps you occupied with so many one-liners and zippy transitional scenes that you scarcely notice when actual story elements emerge. The film details the dotty day-to-day life of Cher (Silverstone), whose existence is absorbed by fashion, being cool, fashion, friends and fashion. Cher uses a computer program to help her match garments in her wardrobe, and scrutinizes herself with Polaroids because "I don't trust mirrors." (Silverstone goes through about three dozen costume changes by the end of the film). With her friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) at her side, Cher dominates her Beverly Hills school's social scene as if it were her life's ambition.
Specialized speech patterns, a survey of modern-day school cliques and jokes about shopping can only carry a movie so far, but Clueless' satirical elements are only the first stage of the picture's charms. Before the film has had a chance to come across as a big California in-joke, Heckerling's bright screenplay takes a backward step and does something unexpected: It turns its caricatures into humans. Whereas The Brady Bunch's Marcia Brady acted out variations on the same dumb-girl joke throughout that whole movie, Cher (who bears a marked resemblance to Ms. Brady) undergoes actual character development as Clueless progresses.
Cher's changes begin when she decides it's her mission to do good deeds for her fellow man. She starts off selfishly, trying to get better grades by matchmaking two lonely teachers (Twink Caplan and Wallace Shawn, whose presence always signals that a movie can't be half bad). But soon Cher's got the bug of altruism, focusing on helping a wardrobe-challenged new girl (Brittany Murphy, the film's only acting liability) and contributing to relief efforts by donating daddy's least favorite brands of caviar to those without food.
As hard as she tries, though, Cher begins to realize her limitations in affecting the outside world. Cher's college-age step-brother (the engagingly low-key Paul Rudd) can see right through her manipulations, her attempts to seduce a stylish Luke Perry type (Justin Walker) fail miserably, and she realizes she's turned her once-sweet protégé into a snobby monster. When the movie eventually gets around to expanding on all of these distinct peripheral characters, you realize the picture's heart is as warm as its tongue is sharp. Unlike its distant, earlier cousin Heathers, for which the positive ending felt hollow, Clueless offers satire with soul. Cher's realizations about herself actually seem like something a young fashion queen might go through.
Even when Clueless is just coasting along (which is fairly frequently, given the thinness of the plot), Heckerling provides enough silly moments to keep even a pessimistic alternative-weekly movie reviewer going. I laughed out loud several times; my favorite part was the brief scene when a character's lack of coolness was demonstrated by her enthusiasm for singing a Mentos commercial. ("Mentos! The Freshmaker!" she chirps, as Cher looks on in bewilderment.) And Cher's critical voice-over commentary about today's teen-male fashions, with their baggy-butt jeans hanging from exposed boxer shorts and backwards baseball caps over messy hair, was just what the fashion doctor ordered. Unlike most movies about young people, which throw out random handfuls of cultural reference in hopes something will stick (Reality Bites is a prime example), here's a picture that actually seems to know its subject matter.
Of course, Clueless would be nothing without Alicia Silverstone, whose curled-up lip pout and scrunchy forehead technique are used to maximum effect here. Silverstone makes a cute, deft comedienne, and there's definitely something weird and cartoony about her that clicks. It's amazing filmmakers were able to find a role suited to her unique talents at all. Thank goodness somebody, unlike the makers of the weak Silverstone movies The Crush and Hideaway, finally got a clue.
Clueless is playing at Catalina (886-0616)
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