Written & Directed by Amy Heckerling
I was fourteen when Clueless came out, and like most adolescent boys of the time, I acted like it didn’t interest me, that it was for girls. I couldn’t avoid it, though, and I can remember how it permeated culture that summer. I never saw the movie until now. Clueless is such a product of its time and word that Paramount is talking about remaking; it feels tone-deaf. You cannot remake this. It was based on Emma so you could do another contemporary retelling of that story, but Clueless is such a specific tone and look that captures an exaggerated version of the mid-90s. Better to let this film simply exist as an artifact of its time then try to recreate the feeling you had first seeing it as a teenager.
Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is a teenager living in Beverly Hills, enjoying a life of shopping and hanging out with her friends. Cher decides to help out Tai (Brittany Murphy), the new girl at school in finding a boyfriend, and goes about a series of miscalculated matchmaking attempts. Through a series of comedic episodes, we get to know this clique of friends and their youthful exploits. At one point, Cher makes it her goal to couple two of her teachers who she thinks need each other, but also so that their happier moods lead to a boost in her grades. Along the way, the teenager must deal with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), who is living in her father’s mansion and whom she might actually have feelings for.
Clueless is a movie that upends your expectations, at least for people like me who have only now seen the picture twenty-five years after its release. Despite knowing it was based on Jane Austen’s Emma, I didn’t expect it to be quite as witty as it was. Cher is not a “dumb blonde stereotype,” she has the mannerisms of that cliche but the intellect and vocabulary of a knowledgeable person. She’s not someone who shows off their smarts, rather her depth of knowledge if just a passive thing she doesn’t have to justify to others or explain. I can imagine what a refreshing female character she had been at the time, a variation on the Marilyn Monroe persona, as Amy Heckerling says.
I can’t say I was enamored with Clueless, but I definitely appreciate it for what it is. I did laugh at moments, but the style of humor is very much something I remember from my youth in the 1990s. I think parts of this will translate well to contemporary preteen audiences, but I think some jokes will play awkwardly when compared to modern sensibilities. What works beautifully here are Alicia Silverstone and Brittany Murphy. These two actresses are the best part of the picture, so smart in their choices and incredibly charming. Silverstone feels like one of those larger than life icons as Cher, and it makes sense why her acting career didn’t play out in the best way possible. This role is so eclipsing that I imagine small-minded producers and casting directors were unable to see past Cher and to the actress. Silverstone shows such command in this part and holds her own carrying a tentpole summer movie on her shoulders.
The film’s production faced the very prejudices you would expect at the time. Male studio heads shelved the script with the demand that fewer female characters be featured in the story, something Heckerling did not change. Six months after that, the script became caught in a bidding war between Fox and Paramount, with the latter studio winning out. Paramount, who owns MTV and Nickelodeon, did a better job of understanding the material and skillfully marketing to the youth demographic. I would have to think that Cher is a much better role model than some of the other female presences in media at the time because she fights against the stereotype of the intelligent girl as “ugly” or “boring.” The movie still presents a specific look accepted over others, which is where the film remains slightly problematic. I would love to know if Clueless still plays to a preteen/teen female audience today; if they still get the jokes and aren’t bogged down by the period-specific references and slang.