Clueless: “Whatever!” Edition

™, ®, & Copyright ©1995 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

“Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good. Also, sometimes you have to show guys a little skin. This reminds guys of being naked, and then they think of sex!” says Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone). My wife turns to me and quips, “She says it like it’s some big secret!”

That’s the wonderful thing about this movie. Of all the various iterations of matchmaker-romance-comedies about teenage life, “Clueless” has the benefit of the wit, wisdom and charm of writer/director Amy Heckerling, whose directing credits include the grandfather of the genre, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (screenplay by Cameron Crowe).

“What’s with you, kid? You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?” responds Cher’s father, Mel (Dan Hedaya) to Christian (Justin Walker)—a failed attempt at a throwback to the 1950’s. Hedaya, who plays his distrust with equal parts anger, suspicion, indifference and hilarity has one of the funniest lines in movie father history, but I don’t want to spoil the delight. Mel isn’t one of those absurdly boisterous movie fathers, but a cross between a smartass and a dad—in other words, my father-in-law. He’s likeable in his own, demented sort of way.

There are also several comedic exchanges between Murray Duvall (Donald Faison) and his girlfriend, Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash). Additionally, the interplay between two unwitting pawns in Cher’s latest matchmaking scheme, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and Ms. Geist (Twink Caplan) is cute. Hall is very matter-of-fact, preoccupied with the art of teaching. Having an introspective manner yet willing to challenge his students in the least insulting way, he’s a direct contrast to Heckerling’s Mr. Hand, the crotchety teacher from “Fast Times”. Geist is, as the name directly translates, a ghost—barely noticeable. Of course Cher makes it her duty to transform Geist—setting her and Hall on a path toward whatever kind of bliss these two shy, nerdy teachers may discover together.

Cher is selfish, to be sure, but not malicious like the myriad vipers of other movie cliques. She has good intentions, obsequious, even if ultimately to fulfill herself. The film works through its necessary conflicts, between Mel and Cher, between Cher and Tai Fraiser (Brittany Murphy, in one of her most underrated, clever performances), and so on… but intelligently, not malevolently. I credit this partly to Jane Austen, as the film is based loosely on Emma. I also credit this to Amy Heckerling, who demonstrates a keen understanding, much like Tina Fey (head writer of “Saturday Night Live” and screenwriter of “Mean Girls”), of teenagers and the (usually) harmless melodrama that occupies their lives.

The plot isn’t unnecessarily elaborate. It’s economical enough to let the characters be, well… characters. Cher, the daughter of a wealthy attorney, takes it upon herself to try to primp the unseemly Tai and match her with the cool kid, Elton (Jeremy Sisto). Tai, however, seems much more interested in the ingeniously unskilled skater Travis Birkenstock (Breckin Meyer).

Cher, not the quickest mind, doesn’t seem to grasp why Christian is less interested in her than he is in himself. Tai feels so terribly awkward in Cher’s company, but presses on like a trooper—trying to fit in. There’s a great scene that intercuts between the band playing at a dance, and Tai, alone on the dance floor. Each time it cuts back to Tai, she’s wearing her outfit differently—hoping to attract someone… anyone?

Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), Cher’s live-in stepbrother (not by blood, as Mel was married to his mother briefly, but wasn’t his father), begins to grow on her as he respects what she’s trying to do for Tai, however misguided her intentions may be. I’m not certain if there’s some sort of significance of the character being named after one of the actors in “Alive” (1993), except to say that it seems at times to be a sheer act of willpower for the relatively intellectual Josh to not be madly driven toward cannibalism by Cher’s egocentrism. But I digress.

Of course you can probably anticipate where the movie goes from here, but I mean that in a good way. The film, always lighthearted and good-natured toward its characters and in its intentions, could not stray from that formula with a weak or tragic ending. So, happily ever after it is.

I have a complaint regarding most digital restorations of movies more than ten years old. Either the engineers who perform these restorations are cutting corners, or its a factor of source material that hasn’t been preserved well, but films older than ten years often seem to have intermittent jitter, or dropped frames, even when significant care has been taken to restore the color and clarity of the overall picture. Here, there isn’t a noticeable error to be found. The colors are rich, and the picture is free of any discernible artifacts.

One word of advice, however. Films generally have muted tones and more narrow contrast than the extremely sharp hues and wide color gamut of video. It’s wise to greatly decrease the color saturation on your TV to less than one-third of the full scale, at least when watching DVD’s. Desaturating the colors but maintaining the contrast will produce a softer overall picture that’s much more natural to the eye—relative to how we perceive color in three-dimensional space.

The lack of extra footage doesn’t particularly bother me. Now that every DVD under the sun (including all the bad ones) has them, I’m rarely excited any more about deleted scenes or scene extensions. Steven Spielberg pointed out his reason for excluding deleted or extended scenes from the “Schindler’s List” DVD was that the theatrical version of that movie was exactly as he wanted it to be—not a shot excluded that shouldn’t have been. “Clueless” is just that kind of film. Under Heckerling’s direction, it is pitch-perfect in every way, given the genre.

The special features are oddly lacking for a re-release. The most interesting of them is “The Class of ’95”, which contains parallel then-and-now interviews of all of the principal actors. The rest, for example, “Fashion 101”, “Language Arts” and, of course, “Suck ‘N Blow – A Tutorial” (no, not that kind) might be entertaining to the average teenager. However, being 31, I’m probably not qualified to judge whether or not your typical 15-year old will be interested. That scares me, given that I graduated high school only three years before this film was originally released. I was about to say, “My, how time flies,” but then I realized that saying would date me even further.

The driving reasons to rent or buy this DVD, if so inclined, are the picture quality and entertainment value of the main feature. Its replay value is hardly surpassed by any other comedies from the mid-1990’s onward, especially teen comedies. That’s where Heckerling demonstrates why she is a master of this particular genre. She knows how to explore the humorous situations in adolescent life without descending into adolescent humor.

Clueless: “Whatever!” Edition • Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes • DVD Aspect Ratio: 16:9 Anamorphic • Dolby® Digital 2.0-channel stereo and 5.1-channel surround sound encoding • MPAA Rating: PG-13, for sex related dialogue and some teen use of alcohol and drugs.

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