CLUELESS – Blu-ray review

Note:  In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and his colleague Justin Cleveland provide their opinions of the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Coincidentally, Alicia Silverstone made “Clueless” in 1995 at about the same time that Gwyneth Paltrow made a film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”  Why is that of interest?  Because the writer-director of “Clueless,” Amy Heckerling (“European Vacation,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Look Who’s Talking”), based her screenplay loosely on “Emma.”  Viewed back to back, the two films make a fascinating comparison, and, just as surprising, they’re both pretty good.

Of course, Heckerling updated her adaptation of the relentlessly willful young matchmaker from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century, setting it in upscale Beverly Hills rather than the stately English countryside.  Still, both protagonists are rather full of themselves, intent on rearranging the lives of those around them without recognizing their own needs and emotions in the process.

Austen described her character as “handsome, clever, and rich,” and that goes for Cher Horowitz (Silverstone) as well.  Beautiful, certainly; rich, yes, her father (Dan Hedaya) a prosperous, divorced attorney; and definitely clever.  Maybe too clever for her own good, and not too wise, as she constantly meddles in the affairs of others.

The main point of contrast between “Emma” and “Clueless,” though, is one of intent.  Ms. Austen was writing a polite comedy of manners, and “Clueless” is an all-out satire on modern customs, particularly the mores of modern teens.  If Ms. Heckerling were doing it today, she’d probably include smart phones, texting, facebook, Twitter, and the like, but those things didn’t exist in the mid Nineties.  Instead, she settles for the old standbys:  clothing, language, style, and personal relationships, spoofing them all quite effectively.  The film remains humorous from beginning to end, with a sweet romantic comedy squeezed into the send-ups as well.

So, like Cher is this high school prom queen, see, who is forever talking her way out of or into something, while simultaneously ensuring that everyone around her plays out the lives she plans for them.  She talks her teachers into giving her the grades she wants; she prepares romances not only for her friends but her teachers, too–like getting her debate teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and her English teacher, Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), together; and she and her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash), decide to give a new, “clueless” girl in school, Tai (Brittany Murphy), a makeover.  Along the way, Cher almost forgets that she needs a love life herself, despite an adoring lady-killer (Jeremy Sisto) in her class; a caring ex-stepbrother (Paul Rudd) living at her house; and a cute, new boy in school (Justin Walker), all within reach.

Above all, though, the movie is a satire, as I say.  It lampoons fashion consciousness, for instance:  Cher picks out her clothes each morning using a computer program for precise matching of her ensemble.  Teen language:  “You know, like, hello; whatever.”  Cultural status:  Cher and Dionne’s parents named them after “great singers of the past who now do infomercials.”  Wealth:  Both Cher and Dionne live in Beverly Hills mansions, Cher’s “with columns that date back all the way to 1972”; they, their parents, and their friends drive new Ferraris, Mercedes, BMWs, Jeeps, and Cameros; and Cher tells us her mom died when she was just a baby, a “fluke accident during a routine liposuction.”  And there are playful, insightful jabs at shopping, malls, cell phones, social class, and the like as well.

Silverstone herself is at the heart of the picture, and she is very good, indeed, never betraying our trust by becoming a mere caricature, never making her character an object of scorn or derision, never making us see the character only as a symbol of spoiled affluence but as a sympathetic victim of it.  It is probably the best role Ms. Silverstone, a fine actress, has ever had, and, unfortunately, one that may have typecast her as well.

“Clueless” is a sweet, comical, knowing film, and it’s anything but clueless.

John’s film rating:  7/10

The Film According to Justin:
“Like… whatever.” It’s the movie that inspired the entire nation to adopt Southern California Valley Speak… now it’s available on Blu-ray. But is it possible that this movie, responsible for the spread of the worst parts of America’s lexicon during the 1990s, is actually a good film? Perhaps surprisingly… yes.

Based loosely on the Jane Austen novel, Emma, “Clueless” focuses on Cher Horowitz (which formally introduced Alicia Silverstone to the cinematic world… and likely typecasting her for the next decade) and her interactions in the world of Southern California’s affluent suburbs. Cher is vapid and self-absorbed, a stereotype of the highest order, personifying “New York Post” celebrity gossip columns. Living her life by her social calendar, Cher does partake in some perceived social charity – though it is largely for her own benefit. She hooks up her teachers to get them in a better mood and get better grades. She takes on a project to renovate the new girl in town, Tai (Brittnay Murphy), away from her slacker attractions and New York style and into the social scene to prove that she can do it.

But Cher is also looking for love… but as the song says, she’s doing it in all the wrong places. Though she detests boys, Cher starts to realize the benefits of having a steady in her life. Trying to seduce the new, Elvis-impersonating homosexual at school probably isn’t the best way to start, but when Cher does see her path, she finds it in a most unexpected place.

One of the biggest criticisms I can level against “Clueless” is its lack of focus. Jumping from topic to topic, the film is loosely organic but still takes on a large number of narrative topics without dedicating itself to any. While this may be an unintentional reflection on the focus of the protagonist of the film, I found it distracting. As a result, “Clueless” becomes more a character piece about the growth of Cher, looking at her life, fall, and the rebirth of her perception of the world around her and how it works.

As great as Alicia Silverstone is playing Cher, the movie lives and dies by its supporting cast. Without excellent actors like Stacey Dash and Breckin Meyer to reinforce the stereotypical concepts, or if anyone played their role half-assed, “Clueless” wouldn’t work. But because the seemingly silly romantic subplot is played straight, complete with Cher’s naïve voice-over, I can buy into it as a viewer. The same goes for Paul Rudd as Josh, Cher’s do-gooder step brother and Dan Hedaya as the over-the-top lawyer who provides Cher’s extravagant lifestyle. If they didn’t have a good dynamic with Silverstone, it would be impossible to accept the outlandish concept of the film; but because it works, so too does the film.

Certainly “Clueless” is a film mired in its era. Fortunately the base story is able to transcend (or perhaps enhance) the dressings of the film and a neat little portrait of ego and wealth in an affluent life comes out. Good actors, interesting characters, a wonderful (if overly complex) story all combine for a film that still holds up as entertaining today. I liken it to “Saturday Night Fever.” The ideological concepts are solid, even if the dress and verbiage is a smidge out of date. “Clueless” is a picture of an era with a solid, entertaining story at its core.

“Clueless” is cute, sweet, with real heart. It’s dated, to be sure, but in a way that makes it more quaint and wonderful. I’ll be mocked for having it in my collection, but I won’t regret it for a moment.

Justin’s film rating:  7/10

The Paramount video engineers do up the picture with a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to capture the film’s image in its theatrical aspect ratio, 1.85:1.  One notices some very slight inherent print grain at first, which gives the PQ a realistic, film-like texture.  The image itself is fairly sharp, with sometimes intentionally gaudy colors; yet the colors are almost always natural, the facial tones generally realistic, if very occasionally a little too dark.  In other words, the picture quality is bright yet not all, like, you know, totally flashy.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction has little to do beyond replicate dialogue and music, which it does with ease.  The midrange sounds smooth, clear, and clean, rendering voices distinctly.  To add a little further realism, the rear channels display a small degree of ambient musical bloom, along with a few environmental noises and the squealing of tires.

The disc carries over the bonus items found on the DVD of a few years back and adds a couple more.  The first item is a “Clue or False” trivia game, a series of questions about the film and the filmmakers that a viewer can answer while the movie plays in the background.  Next are seven brief featurettes from 2005.  These include “The Class of ’95,” about eighteen minutes on the characters and casting; “Creative Writing,” about nine minutes on how the writer-director and others developed the script; “Fashion 101,” ten minutes on the costume designs; “Language Arts,” eight minutes on the film’s teen slang; “Suck ‘N Blow: A Tutorial,” three minutes on the film’s kissing game; “Driver’s Ed,” four minutes on shooting the freeway scene; and “We’re History,” nine minutes on the film’s cultural impact and what the film meant to the actors in it.

The extras wrap with fifteen scene selections; bookmarks; a teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer in high-definition widescreen; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.  Paramount finish the job by providing a beautifully embossed slipcover for the package, although they use a flimsy Eco-case for the disc.

Parting Thoughts:
While “Clueless” may appear at first glance like a typical teenage comedy, its satiric bent and refusal to talk down to its audience raise it above the norm.  Like several other such films–“Ferris Bueller” and “Breakfast Club” come to mind–it’s funny, poignant, and pointed.  Possibly more important, it doesn’t feel the need to hit the audience over the head with long streams of gross profanity or sexual crudities in order to be funny as so many more-recent teen comedies seem compelled to do.  “Clueless” is actually a pretty funny film without all the grossness.