Clueless is a shockingly vicious satire of the moneyed classes of Clintonian America; it is the sort of comedy in which only the constant flow of jokes keep us from recoiling at the sheer nastiness of it. There's hardly a single likable person in the whole thing, and some of those who start off as likable have been corrupted by the end. Yet the tone is so unflinchingly breezy and playful that it never descends into the misanthropic nihilism of so much satire, and the inevitable Hollywood happy ending is much more delightful and contented than it is sour, though a dark undercurrent is there if you want to see it. But let me not get too far ahead of the game.
In the mid-'90s, something must have gotten got into the water supply, for it was then that, out of nowhere whatsoever, Jane Austen movies began cropping up like dandelions. "Naught weird about that", you might counter, "she's a popular author, and books by popular authors in the public domain get made into movies." But some context: between 1895 and 1994, there was one theatrically-released Austen movie: the 1940 Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson. That same book was adapted for British television with some regularity, once a decade or so throughout the 20th Century, and all of her other novels were given the BBC treatment at least once; but there was nothing at all to predict the sudden onslaught of Austenania in 1995, beginning with the UK television premiere of a new version of Persuasion that received theatrical distribution throughout the world, followed by the iconic six-part Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's Oscar-nominated Sense and Sensibility. Beating all of these to American theaters, in July of that year, Clueless was Heckerling's bold revision of Emma (given a more straightforward adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow the following year), set in the materialistic world of Beverly Hills, California. Given the general directive by Paramount, "give us a teen film", Heckerling responded by updating her favorite novel as a teenager and created a cottage industry: this film essentially invented the now-tired "Major Literary Title X in a high school!" trope. I do not have any idea what all this means, but to my knowledge the sudden - and, 16 years later, still ongoing - explosion of a single author in the popular consciousness is unmatched elsewhere in the annals of film history.
1995 was also right about the time that quintessentially '90s teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210 was just beginning its decline in popularity, which means that when Heckerling was writing the script, that film was at its absolute peak of annoying ubiquity. On some level, then, Clueless is just another "let's make fun of pop culture!" parody, though that level is tiny and dull. What's far more interesting about the film is the smiling savagery with which it tears down the lifestyle pornography that 90210 so emptily embodied, the kind which has been further refined by increasingly indulgent reality television and ever-more superficially glamorous TV melodramas in the decade and a half since Heckerling's film debuted. At first blush, Clueless appears to be just more of the same: the film begins with the hectically cheerful narration of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone, in the role that made it look for a few years like she was going to be a star), daughter of privilege and queen bee at her posh high school, purveyor of some of the darnedest slang you ever did hear. Her mission in life is to make everyone around her happy, which largely consists of helping her lawyer dad (Dan Hedaya, just to make sure we get that he's the venal, greedy kind of lawyer) with his paperwork, teaching the new girl, Tai (Brittany Murphy, glorious in her breakthrough), how to dress and act like a billion-dollar whore, and making sure that everybody she knows is in a happy romantic relationship. Given the custom of American film comedies - and American films generally - to expect us to fall in love with our protagonists, one's first assumption is that Cher will be our ditzy but lovable heroine.
It doesn't take very long - and, to be fair, the title pretty much spells it out for us - to figure out that Cher is a goddamned idiot. The more generous reviewer might choose the word "naïve". Either way, one of the very first things we see her actually, actively do is to deliver a rambling non sequitur "argument" about foreign aid in debate class, one of the film's most iconic scenes during which, among other things, she mispronounces the word "Haitians". There's a lot that this speech reveals about the character, depending on how far we want to drag Clueless through the mud of politics; minimally, that she is wildly unconcerned about academics or anything at all beyond the materialistic world of the 90210 bubble; and maximally, that she specifically isn't unconcerned about the world, but that her understanding of human nature is so fundamentally warped that she actually thinks the suffering of the Third World is actually equal to the travails of a party gone wrong. It's this second reading that I gravitate towards, though by no mean does the film insist on it; it just fits so well if Cher is, rather than a clueless teenager, someone who actually no longer has a functioning sense of what is right and wrong in a global sense; someone who is fundamentally unable to comprehend what a lack of money actually looks like. Elsewhere in the film Cher invests herself in charity work, and this is not, generally speaking, played as the actions of somebody who has just learned that there are unfortunate people in the world, and then helps them out in a clumsy way; it plays instead as someone who has always known there are unfortunate people, who has just decided to do something about it, and who honestly thinks that "unfortunate" means that they don't have enough caviar.
Consider something like Born Yesterday, wherein a similarly superficial and ditzy woman has enough integrity to realise that her life is all wrong, and reaches out in some tentative way to fix it, to find just how far afield from the traditional character arcs Clueless finds itself. This is Marie Antoinette, "let them eat cake" territory, and if it had come out five years earlier or twelve years later, in a period of economic decline, rather than at the start of the most exuberant financial expansion since the 1960s, this exact movie would seem like a call to class warfare. As it stands, it's just a comedy, and a brilliant one; the Heckerling whose previous screenwriting consisted solely of the deathless Look Who's Talking and the immortal Look Who's Talking Too is not in evidence. Even the Heckerling who directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, one of the smartest of all '80s teen comedies, can't be entirely responsible for this film that mines so much humor out of making fun of not just its protagonist, but its whole cast, no exceptions, without ever feeling sour or nasty or misanthropic. The most surprising thing about Clueless, given how enthusiastically it indicts its characters and their universe, is how much fun it is.
I would love to be able to say, "this is how Heckerling did it", and yet I'm at a loss to explain how Cher's own romantic travails, involving an un-closeted gay kid (Justin Walker), and her blandly smug college-age ex-stepbrother. Josh (Paul Rudd, who must have been ecstatic that this easygoing, gleefully self-centered performance put him on the map and distracted everybody from his headlining role in the same year's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), end up being as engaging as they are. Despite our sure and certain knowledge that Cher is completely frivolous and indefensibly unaware of the needs and feelings of anyone around her, it's really hard not to want her to end up in love; hell, even when the very inevitable happens and she realises to her dumbfounded shock that she wants to end up with Josh, we still want her to end up with him, despite the fact that at the very least, it's kind of squicky; ex-siblings they may be, but there were cultures in history where that still counts as incest. No matter how gleefully savage the satire, no matter how much it stresses Cher's lack of substance, Clueless is still a completely engaging romantic comedy.
And here's the punchline: for that reason, I wonder if it might be the truest Jane Austen adaptation of them all. Think about all the filmed Pride and Prejudices you've seen. Awfully sincere, aren't they? Delicately re-creating the period sets and costumes, hitting the melodrama and angst between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy for all they're worth. Some have something of a sense of humor, some have not.
Here's the first line from Pride and Prejudice. It's really damn famous, and you've probably encountered it before:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."Roll that around. Say it out loud. Think about it. It's kind of funny, isn't it, in a sly way? And kind of pointed, and even, I daresay, satirical? And then think about Sense and Sensibility, where Austen oh-so-subtly indicates that both of the Dashwood sisters are, in the own different ways, vaguely absurd characters? Really, once you get down to it, there are places throughout all of her books where Austen is plainly, though with impeccable refinement, mocking the people and societies in her stories. Yes, she cares about them and wants them to be happy, but she always understands and even emphasises the fact that they are inherently foolish. That detail is mostly absent from every major Austen adaptation, except this one. So, am I suggesting that if Austen were alive today, she'd be writing stories more like Clueless and less like the films based on her own novels? Well... yes, frankly. And for that reason if none other, I raise my glass to Heckerling, and her broadly mercenary assignment that turned into the sharpest, best teen comedy of the 1990s.