The 90s On Netflix: Clueless (1995)
Mark Harrison | On 22, May 2020
Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Stacy Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, and Dan Hedaya
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“Would you call me selfish?” “No, not to your face.”
There are a few movies from the late 1990s onwards that modernise classic literature for an American high-school setting and that pretty much began with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. 25 years after its release, the teen movie is as seminal for the 1990s as the director’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High was for the decade before.
Loosely adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma, the film transplants a coming-of-age story first penned in 1815 to contemporary Beverly Hills. High-school student Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) loves helping others, but usually in a way that indirectly benefits herself. Chastened by her ex-step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) for her selfish ways, Cher embarks upon a new project in the shape of newcomer Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy), but comes to some startling realisations about herself in the process.
Like Autumn de Wilde’s (excellent) period film of Emma, Clueless takes a faithful tack but didn’t start as a direct adaptation of Austen’s novel. Heckerling was commissioned to write a TV pilot for a teen comedy-drama series that went by working titles such as No Worries and I Was A Teenage Teenager. After producers encouraged her to convert the film into a feature, she realised that Cher was subconsciously related to Emma and dug out the story for reference.
Like all the best examples of this kind of film, the joy is in seeing how the story’s structure is rejigged rather than watching it be projected onto a different setting. For one thing, Tai is far savvier than Emma’s ward Harriet Smith – “You guys have coke here?” – which has interesting consequences later in the story, and Dan Hedaya gives superb Muppet eyes as Cher’s exasperated dad. The biggest testament to the film’s deft storytelling is that nobody is ever too icked out by the “ex-stepbrother” thing that makes Rudd’s eventual love interest a modern counterpart to the neighbourly Mr Knightley. Frankly, we have more questions about why Rudd never aged any more after this.
But from script to screen, Cher Horowitz is one of the great teen movie characters, even without her creative debt to previous texts. The witty banter and the virginal status are carried over, but these chime differently in the updated setting. From the very start, Heckerling’s script is so smart in establishing what Cher is missing as a person, even if she is essentially good-hearted and comfortable. It’s a tough line to walk, but it helps that Silverstone’s sunny, entertaining performance keeps it on the straight and narrow.
Unlike Cher, the film earns a licence to veer all over the shop, bumping into different plot episodes throughout the running time, because its way is so well considered. Moreover, Heckerling has an uncanny insight into teenage social life, anticipating how it had evolved (and would continue to evolve) away from tired teen movie genre tropes (swap pagers for iPhones and you barely have to change a thing) – all while bedding in joke after joke without calling attention to its wackiness or undercutting the cast-iron story.
Heckerling has a way of seamlessly weaving episodes back into that story, most notably with the unexpected freeway set piece that gets a lot of laughs but then merges beautifully back on theme. It’s touches like this that make the mooted remake feel more pointless than most, because short of changing the calendar, there’s not much room for improvement here.
A total Betty of a film, Clueless holds up so well to this day because it’s a lovable and quotable rendition of an old-fashioned, but evergreen story. With its departures in tone, it’s a definitive adaptation in the same way as The Muppet Christmas Carol is for the story of Scrooge – maybe it’s not formally faithful to the source material, but it’s probably your favourite version of the story anyway.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
“You see, these aliens from outer space want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care? They’re little, so we challenge them to a basketball game! But then they show up and they ain’t so little, they’re huge! We need to beat these guys, ’cause they’re talking about slavery! They’ll make us do stand-up, the same jokes every night for all eternity! We’re going to be locked up like wild animals and then trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, bad-headed, humour-challenged aliens! What I’m trying to say is… WE NEED YOUR HELP.”