If you passed by a poster for “Clueless” in the summer of 1995, you might have thought: “Great, another teen flick.” It looked like a dippy comedy about Valley girls — how ‘80s! Plus, its star was Alicia Silverstone, the pouty blonde from Aerosmith’s jailbait-fantasy video for “Crazy.” Here, surely, was a movie of no substance.
As if! “Clueless” turned out to be a sweet, smart and very clever comedy wrapped in a fluffy-looking package. Based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma,” and featuring a sharp screenplay by director Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”), “Clueless” was an across-the-board crowd-pleaser, hip enough for its young target-demo but without the crude humor or sex that can turn off parents. Its timing was perfect, arriving at the crest of Austenmania (1995 also saw Gwyneth Paltrow in “Emma” and Emma Thompson in “Sense and Sensibility”), but with upbeat teen energy instead of period-piece propriety. Twenty-five years later, “Clueless” still stands as one of the great teen movies of all time.
Its heroine is the boldly named Cher Horowitz (Silverstone), a spoiled Beverly Hills teenager whose biggest concern is deciding her daily outfit (generated with the help of a boxy Macintosh computer). Pampered, thoughtless and vain, Cher could easily have been a villain; in fact, Heckerling initially conceived “Clueless” as a television show mocking the too-cool crowd. Instead, Heckerling gives Cher a sunny spirit and a good heart. The fact that her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash), is Black, seems important: It tells us Cher's superficiality doesn't extend to color.
The film’s casting — a mix of unknowns, veteran actors and soon-to-be stars — is near-perfect. Silverstone seems born for the role of a sexy blonde with a goofy streak. (Cher’s habit of referring to Haitians as “Haiti-Uns” is actually Silverstone’s honest mistake; the crew was told never to correct her.) Paul Rudd makes a winning film debut as Josh, a college version of Emma’s Mr. Knightley who initially regards Cher as a harmless bubblehead. Dan Hedaya, known for playing hit men and greaseballs (as in the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple”), is unexpectedly heartwarming as Cher’s dad, a barking litigator who dotes on his only daughter. And it’s hard not to feel a pang watching Brittany Murphy as the awkward new girl, Tai Frasier; Murphy would die of pneumonia in 2009, at the age of 32.
There’s barely a moment in “Clueless” that doesn’t sparkle: Wallace Shawn’s puzzled expressions as high school teacher Mr. Hall, or Cher sideswiping a parked car during her DMV test (“Should I write them a note?”), or the amiable stoner Travis (Breckin Meyer) taking a shine to Tai. The eye-popping costumes, by Mona May (later of “Enchanted” and “The Wedding Singer”), are too whimsical to ever go out of fashion; nearly 20 years later, Iggy Azalea recreated them for “Fancy,” her “Clueless”-inspired video. The whole film is so charming that few critics noticed a recurring error: Cher’s surname occasionally changes from Horowitz to Hamilton (check out her report card, for instance).
If there’s any hiccup in Heckerling’s screenplay, it’s the slightly problematic relationship between Cher and Josh. For starters, they’re former stepsiblings, an odd detail that doesn’t come from Austen’s book. (Mr. Knightley is Emma’s sister’s brother-in-law, a very distant relative.) Then there’s the age gap: Josh is surely 19 or 20 years old, while Cher is a freshly turned 16. It isn’t quite Woody-and-Soon-Yi territory, but a studio would probably red-flag such details today. Still, none of this takes away from Cher’s sudden epiphany that she loves Josh — cue the gushing water-fountain in the background! — and their tender first kiss.
“Clueless” created a mini-trend in literary teen films, including the Shakespeare update “10 Things I Hate About You” and the “Pygmalion”-inspired “She’s All That.” It became a television sitcom, a comic book series, a novel series and an Off-Broadway musical. Paramount has been talking about a remake, but the original will be tough to surpass. “Clueless” still stands in a candy-colored, tartan-plaid league of its own.
A 'CLUELESS' GLOSSARY
“Clueless” ushered in a whole new wave of Southern California slang that writer-director Amy Heckerling heard while field-researching actual high schoolers. Some terms were real, others sounded like screenwriterly inventions, but all seemed to delight audiences, who began peppering them into casual conversation. Not since Frank and Moon Zappa’s 1982 novelty track “Valley Girl” had the public spent so much time decoding teenage argot. Here are a few examples.
AS IF A verbal negation of another’s words or actions. Used variously to mean “You are incorrect,” “That’s highly unlikely” or “You are living in a fantasy world.” Typically spoken with sarcastic emphasis, as in: “A date with you? As if!”
AUDI The luxury German automotive brand became slang for “out of here” or “leaving,” as in: “I hate this party, I’m Audi.” Later expanded to “Audi 5000,” perhaps because that model was plagued by reports of sudden acceleration.
BALDWIN An attractive male, as in: “I think he’s a total Baldwin.” Most likely inspired by Massapequa’s acting Baldwin brothers (Alec, Daniel, William and Stephen), who rose to fame in the late 1980s and 1990s.
BETTY An attractive female. The term is currently associated with skateboard culture (see HBO’s “Betty” series) but reportedly has been around since the 1970s. Its origin is hard to prove but is thought to refer to Betty Rubble, a character in the animated television show “The Flintstones.”
BUGGIN’ Having an extreme or inappropriate reaction.” As in: “I got a C in English and now my parents are buggin’.” The term would seem to have its roots in Black culture; Buggin’ Out is the name of Giancarlo Esposito’s hotheaded character in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989).
LOADIE A person who habitually uses drugs; a variation on “stoner,” “pothead” or “druggie.” As in: “You don’t want to turn into a loadie.”
MONET A person whose looks can be deceptive. As explained in the film: “She’s a full-on Monet. It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.” This is most likely a Heckerling invention. — RAFER GUZMAN