A Look Back: Clueless

In the movie, “Anywhere But Here,” there’s a scene (one out of long line of many) in which Susan Sarandon’s flaky divorced mom character mortifies the heck out of Natalie Portman, who’s playing her daughter and has her friends over to study, by urging Natalie to go on an acting audition. “You could do a scene from Clueless!” she says, which is ironic because it happens to be her who is the most clueless character in the movie. “Clueless” is also an update of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, although you don’t have to read the book to enjoy the movie. (However, if you were to be tested on the book, just watching the movie would not be enough.)

In “Clueless” Alicia Silverstone plays a well-to-do Californian teenager who lives with her widowed dad (Dan Hedaya) in a McMansion. Her uber-dorky stepbrother (Paul Rudd) is currently in college but makes regular visits home so the two can bicker adorably. Paul believes Alicia is an airhead (to put it politely), and Alicia believes that Paul is a loser because he is politically aware and not fashion-crazy, or even fashion-conscious. Alicia, however, is a trendsetter in that department at her Beverly Hills high school, and she and her friend, Dionne, (Stacey Dash) wear outfits that have to be seen to be believed. The movie is progressive in that it sends the message that it’s the coordination of your accessories that matter to today’s teens, not the color of each other’s skin, although the first priority mattering as much as it does in this movie is a little scary. But then this is Hollywood and Beverly Hills (around the same time the TV show “Beverly Hills: 90210” was also popular; and one of the characters notes that Alicia is “saving herself for Luke Perry).

Alicia’s dad is a high-powered lawyer who clearly loves his daughter, even if he does look at her report card and quip, “Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades.” The academic side of things does give Alicia a bit of trouble, but she knows the key to good grades is happy teachers, and so she gives one of hers (Twink Caplan) a makeover so she can date another (Wallace Shawn), and her marks shoot up. Alicia is good at formulating pearls of wisdom about everyday life such as, “Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as looking for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie,” but not so good at retaining say, the cultural background of her housekeeper. However, she has a truly charitable streak and is one of the only popular cinematic teen girls who is as nice as she is cute and rich.

Early on in “Clueless,” two new students appear at Alicia’s to help jumpstart the plot: one a tomboyish pothead (Brittany Murphy), who Alicia and Stacey befriend and then give a makeover to, so she can fit in and snare her dream boy (although in movie tradition, he turns out to be someone else than who she originally wanted). The other is Christian (Justin Walker) who likes Alicia, but perhaps not in quite the same way, although it takes her a staggeringly long time to figure this out.

A third plot thread is the acquisition of Alicia’s driver’s license, which at first appears hopeless as she is a terrible driver, but may not matter so much because, as she points out, every place where she lives has valet parking. Stacey is a marginally better driver, but there’s a scene where she accidentally gets on the freeway and then in a rush of relief at escaping, makes out with her boyfriend. Alicia, herself, is a virgin, but even though Christian turns out not to be quite the Adonis she longs for, there is someone else, literally closer to home.

“Clueless” is also responsible for introducing lingo like “Monet,” (someone who looks good from a distance but a mess up close) into the more widespread vernacular. (I even found the term defined in a Tom Wolfe novel on college, which surprised me). The movie’s message may at first appear to be that makeovers are the key to happiness, but it’s actually more complex than that – it’s not only having a closet full of color-coordinated outfits that satisfies Alicia in the end. Wardrobe updates, new hairstyles and snazzy shoes all have a role in making someone feel good about themselves, but so do things that Alicia initially winds up sneering at (like political activism). There is only one true “mean girl” is this movie, and she isn’t one of the trio, who have their differences, but in the end, stay friends – and get to celebrate the end result of one of their match-making schemes.

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