Watching Clueless For the First Time

Seeing as how it’s Women In Comedy week here at Splitsider, I thought it would be appropriate to watch a comedy from a female writer and/or director. Fortunately I’ve been staunchly gender-neutral in my gross negligence of cinema’s best comedies throughout my life, so there were plenty to choose from. But which one? A League of Their Own? Too obvious. Juno? Too recent. Clueless? Tailor-made for my generation, well-regarded among friends and colleagues, seen by almost everyone but me. Just right.

First, Clueless is a great movie, and very funny. It’s also a movie that is designed to make anyone born between 1975 and 1985 feel stupidly giddy. It worked, in my case, so apologies in advance if there’s too much fuzz below.

Alicia Silverstone is fantastic, right? She’s immensely likable, earnestly engaged while being harmlessly self-absorbed, and more grounded and believable than she has any obligation to be. She really makes the jokes work, too, because Clueless isn’t a comedy concerned with timing (which I’ll get to in a minute), but every joke would fail if they smelled the least bit forced or dishonest. Fortunately Silverstone is so committed to making what could so easily be a loathsome, one-dimensional character into a nobly superficial, genuinely sweet character that everything just fits together. It’s actually pretty brilliant.

The rest of the cast is great as well. I think Paul Rudd has gotten much funnier since the beginning of his career, but he does what he’s supposed to do here, and well. Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan’s love story is funny and well-played. Even Breckin Meyer makes me snicker. Dan Hedaya, as Cher’s dad, is maybe my favorite part of the movie, as well as having one of the best lines, which has aged like a ridiculous wine since 1995: “What’s with you, kid? You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?” Just barely topical then, but what a great way to sum up that weird swing-dancing subculture that engulfed the non-jock set when we were in high school. Remember that? Yes you do. You bought Hot by Squirrel Nut Zippers just like everyone else in your AP English class.

But I digress. As talented as the cast is, it’s really about Amy Heckerling’s writing and direction here. There’s something, on a larger level, about the way this film portrays its characters and the world they live in that is much more difficult to pull of than it so breezily suggests. Cher’s high school is hilarious. Just as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s long, hospital-wing hallways and stodgy Reagan-era lecturers show the banality of high school by dwelling on its monotony, Clueless depicts high school as a different, but no more valuable, experience — chaotic, childish, and without consequence, teachers rambling to a class of students actively doing any number of other things, writing notes, eating, making out. The party scenes get a similarly loving/sardonic portrayal as stupid, happy affairs where kids dance badly to dumb music and strategize constantly about how to act and with whom. It’s the perfect mix of sentimentality and irony, and executed with a perfectly light — and light-hearted — touch. And while these scenes don’t have much in the way of pacing — the house party scene especially seems edited without any regard for comic timing — the joy to be taken from Clueless isn’t in punchlines but in the world it creates, romanticizes, and satirizes. At one point I actually laughed out loud at how many neon-colored wardrobe items were on screen at once. I’m losing it, guys. This column is really going downhill.

So, seeing as how it’s Women in Comedy week, I feel like I should make some oafish, butterfingered, and, let’s be honest, unsolicited attempt to put Clueless into a feminist context. Sure, it’s written and directed by a woman, and has an obviously strong female lead and supporting cast, all doing good comedy work, which puts it in the company of, oh, half a dozen movies ever made, but what does it do for women beyond that? I think the answer is “quite a bit,” honestly. It’s an earnest, joyful celebration of unabashed femininity — a cornerstone of third-wave feminism — and moreover it’s a film made for and about young people, rather than preaching to some you-go-girl choir (I’m looking at you, 9 to 5, Sister Act, and A League of Their Own). Cher, Dionne and Tai are confident, empowered women, but more importantly, they’re confident and empowered without needing a villain (in a worse script, a evil rival girl or an asshole guy) to give them strength or justification to be the best version of themselves. The feminist odds seem starkly against Clueless — at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much to recommend a movie about a cute, rich blonde that gets her grades, her friends and her man by being cute, rich and blonde. But against those odds, Clueless is a film about a girl who takes responsibility for her own actions, takes care of the people she loves, finds what she wants, and makes a series of good choices to get it. What more could you ask of a protagonist of any gender?

Plus, folks, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are in this movie. I think Heckerling knew. She had to know when she was setting up that shot of the guy who just dances, or getting closeups of the lead singer’s weird grimaces, that every piece of pop culture in this movie would be a fond little joke in 15 years. She had to know. And that’s why this movie holds up like a champ.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

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