Like Searching for Meaning in a Pauly Shore Movie: Why Clueless Is One of the Best Comedies Ever Made

August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Clueless turned 15 this summer, which means it’s high time I catalogued its virtues for you. In a blog dedicated to women in film beyond Twilight and its ilk, why start with a romantic comedy? Because I’m a firm believer in the fact that chick flicks don’t have to insult our collective intelligence. Clueless is a rom-com done right–truly funny, charming, and smarter than it’s given credit for. Here are six reasons why Clueless is one of the greatest comedies ever made:

1) You may or may not know that Clueless is an updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Updates are tough. Adhere too slavishly to the source material, and the new version seems stilted. Deviate too far from it, and you might as well not even call it an update. Clueless is one of those rare films that works perfectly either as an adaptation or not; you can watch it either way without losing a thing. Watch it as an adaptation and you find that every plot note and character is pitch-perfect compared to the novel. Watch it as an original work and it stands on its own. This doesn’t sound that hard, but just try to name an equally seamless update. (If you want to make it hard on yourself, eliminate anything based on the works of Shakespeare.)

2) Amy Heckerling did more world-building in this movie than your average fantasy novelist. In order to not make the movie’s slang and fashion seem dated by the release date, she created all of it from scratch. It worked; the movie now seems suspended in some faux-1990s wonderland that never really existed. The movie had a big impact on fashion–babydoll dresses and thigh-highs were huge–but some of the invented slang (“I’m Audi,” for example) soon entered the real world, too.

3) There are so many allusions that fly over your head when you watch this movie as a kid–the parodies of Gigi, the clues sprinkled throughout to Christian’s sexuality–but perhaps my favorite is the fact that Cher and her friends attend Bronson Alcott High School. Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was a teacher best known for his idea that students should discipline their teachers rather than the reverse. Fitting!

4) Alicia Silverstone nails Cher. Jane Austen once described the character of Emma (on whom Cher is based), as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” While society’s tolerance for spoiled brats has increased somewhat since the Regency era, let’s face it–it’s still a hard sell to turn a  heroine who is rich, gorgeous, shallow, selfish and irresponsible into someone likable. But the self-deprecating charm of Alicia Silverstone manages it from the opening line.

5) It’s infinitely quoteable. “That’s Ren and Stimpy; they’re way existential.” “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” Almost every joke in the movie is funny, but the humor transcends verbal wit into the visual and physical realms as well.

6) Clueless is Paul Rudd’s major movie debut. I have a major thing for Paul Rudd–in his Clueless incarnation, in his Knocked Up incarnation, probably even in his Anchorman incarnation. Paul Rudd can do no wrong. I once described his portrayal of Josh in this movie as “the perfect man, except for the fact that he wears tapered jeans.” (A friend whom I was watching the movie with at the time said that this quote inspired him to stop wearing tapered jeans, and he’s been a ladies magnet ever since. See, Clueless changes lives!) The Opposites Attract theme is one of my favorites if it’s done well, and the final ten minutes of this movie still tug on my heartstrings every time I watch it.

Of course, that brings us to the movie’s only significant flaw: the fact that, as former stepsiblings, Cher and Josh hooking up is . . . just a little bit icky. I know, some of you can get past that. You’re probably also the kind of people who didn’t mind Margot and Richie’s being secretly in love in The Royal Tenenbaums. You probably rooted for Marcia and Greg to get together on The Brady Bunch. You’re weird. In Emma, the Josh equivalent was a family friend; there’s no reason why he couldn’t have been the same in Clueless. Still, dealing with this singular flaw is minor enough when contrasted with watching the movie’s infinite virtues. Put the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on your CD player, bust out your best plaid, and prepare to get nostalgic.

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