Clueless — Review

Left to right: Elisa Donovan, Stacey Dash, and Alicia Silverstone in a scene from Amy Heckerling's Clueless.
Left to right: Brittany Murphy, Stacey Dash, and Alicia Silverstone in a scene from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.


“It still works because its cleverness and intelligence are above the fads of then, now, or those of the future.”

by Ken Bakely

The passage of more than twenty years has not harmed Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a sly, vaguely meta, and wonderfully sharp adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, set in 1990s Los Angeles. Anchored with brilliant comedic work from Alicia Silverstone as “Cher” Horowitz, the wordy-yet-toothless Valley-Girl-but-in-Beverly-Hills, the film is capable of holding its own, even as its references – from TV shows to fashion trends – become dated. It still works because its cleverness and intelligence are above the fads of then, now, or those of the future. Heckerling’s movie is 96 solid minutes of the teen comedy working at top speed, and it’s not hard to see where successors like Mean Girls have drawn from Clueless’ sphere of influence.

The film’s plot revolves around Cher Horowitz, of course, the sweet but very spoiled daughter of a powerful litigator (Dan Hedaya), whose persuasive behavior has rubbed off on Cher; she can effectively argue her way out of anything. However, when she transforms the tomboyish new girl at school, Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy), into a creation after her own image, Tai becomes a towering figure of artificiality which rivals the pre-existing notions of Cher and her other best friend, Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash). Now, what was supposed to be a coronation of popularity to be ridden to graduation and beyond is suddenly derailed, and Cher realizes that there are real consequences of her skin-deep worldview, which she has now pushed on Tai.

What many first-time viewers will notice about Clueless is how it has essentially become a time capsule of American pop culture in 1995 – any thirty second snag of dialogue is likely to contain references to a wide variety of points, from Mel Gibson, to the Cranberries, to the filmography of Pauly Shore. Heckerling recognizes the structure of the way teenagers talk in this respect, and manages to both emulate that element while exaggerating the minutia and tone of conversations for maximum comedic effect. This rapport is brought to life in splendidly memorable performances – Silverstone and Murphy most notably – but also a great supporting cast, from a young Paul Rudd as Cher’s stepbrother, to Wallace Shawn as a history teacher.

Vibrantly lit and framed by cinematographer Bill Pope, and energetically edited by Debra Chiate, Clueless has technical packaging which accompanies its creative style perfectly. Indeed, Heckerling certainly knew what she was doing, and worked with a cast and crew in melodious tandem. The result is a movie that is sometimes a little too featherweight for its own good, but also one which undoubtedly earns its place as a cult classic of its subgenre, playfully poking at the edges of the fourth wall, and still greatly amusing and perceptive to this day.

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