Starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy
My rating: ★★ stars
Seminal teen movie is too often critical of its protagonist.
This weekend, Clueless celebrated its 20th anniversary. Although pondering that made me feel old, I decided to revisit the movie, which I hadn’t seen since its initial release. Despite the fact that teen movies are my favorite genre and Clueless is a seminal work in that genre, and even though it was one of the few notable teen movies released when I was actually a teenager, I never felt the urge to watch it over the past 20 years.
Part of the problem is that Clueless is based on my least favorite Jane Austen novel, Emma. My dislike for Emma is based on its storyline. Emma, like Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless, is presented as a foolish and consistently misguided character who is patronized and chastised by her love interest, Mr. Knightly (in Clueless, Cher’s stepbrother, Josh, played by Paul Rudd). Emma’s Knightly is not only some years older than she, but, as the novel presents, infinitely wiser. The condescending attitude the novel has towards its main character and the notion that she (and Cher) must change and improve herself to be worthy of Knightly (or Josh) while he (or Josh) has to make no personality improvements belittles women. It promotes the notion that a woman must earn a man’s affections.
Despite being written and directed by a woman—Amy Heckerling—and based on a novel by a woman, Clueless comes off as sexist, focusing on a female character whose mistakes are constantly looked down upon by the fellow whole will be matched with her romantically at the dénouement.
Cher’s first folly is to attempt to be a matchmaker for her personal pet project, Tai (Brittany Murphy). She has given Tai a makeover and now wants to fix her up with the big man on campus, Elton (Jeremy Sisto). When this match proves disastrous, Cher turns her attention to her own love life, vying for the affections of the handsome Christian (Justin Walker), another disaster. When Josh reveals his own more-than-brotherly fondness for Cher, it’s after he chivalrously comes to her defense when she makes yet another error, this time as she attempts to help her father in business. In fact, she often has to be rescued by Josh from the consequences of her screw-ups.
Cher is not totally insipid. She is shown to be persuasive and to be able to learn things quickly, but too often the jokes in the film are on her, her superficiality, and her insipidity. Silverstone, who, as a performer, never managed to break out of the image this role created for her, is charming. However, she doesn’t convey the level of intelligence needed to indicate that Cher has a more substantial personality than what appears on the surface. Rudd, on the other hand, has a sweetness that ameliorates Josh’s potential for condescension. His persona suggests a self-effacing quality than prevents his attitude toward Cher from seeming too supercilious.
The humor in the movie comes from the speech, mannerisms, and behaviors of the characters. Thus, the characters seem like contrivances rather than real people. Many of the jokes fall flat since what seemed new and fresh in 1995 is now stale. It could be said that the success Clueless had in influencing teen culture made what was unusual in the film and, therefore, funny, into something ordinary.
When Clueless came out, it seemed innovative and original. But with time having stripped away those qualities, it comes off as a sweet, marginally amusing teen film. And there are a lot of those. The problems with Clueless will probably keep me from returning to it any time soon despite my love for the genre.