FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH - DVD review

It's all pretty much by the book, and in this case they needed a funnier one.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

According to the documentary that comes with the film, Universal Studios were so sure in 1982 that "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was going to fail, they only released it in the Western United States. They refused to spend money to distribute and advertise it on the East Coast. Of course, it was a smash hit. Curiously, the studio had made the same mistake about "American Graffiti" a decade before. Now, both films are available on special-edition DVDs. But there the similarities end. "American Graffiti" went on to become a cinematic classic--humorous, poignant, insightful, and honest. "Fast Times" is largely prosaic, crude, stereotyped, and pointless. It is rated R for sex, nudity, and profane language.

The film was written by Cameron Crowe, who in 1979 went back to high school undercover to write a book and subsequently a screenplay about high school life. He might have saved himself the trouble and merely watched "Porky's," which opened just prior to "Fast Times." The same vacuous characters abound. OK, I know what you're thinking. You knew people in high school exactly like the ones in "Fast Times." Maybe you did. At least that's what Crowe wants you to think. Certainly, all of the characters in the movie are partly true-to-life. But they're caricatures, exaggerations of real human beings.

Now, don't get me wrong, comedy mostly deals in caricature; but at about the three-quarters mark this movie turns very serious, and its sudden shift is difficult to accept after so much overstatement. Take, for instance, the kids. Every one of them is beautiful. Every young man is handsome; every young woman is gorgeous. There isn't an ordinary-looking person among them.

Worse, except for two token blacks, they are all white and middle class, even though this is supposed to be Los Angeles in the early eighties. No Hispanics, no Asians, no rich, no poor. And the buildings: On the outside they appear to be the genuine article, but on the inside every classroom is gleaming bright, the desktops spotless, lockers shiny new, hallways clean and glossy; not a candy wrapper or empty Coke can in sight! And need I mention that parents are never seen in this story, as though they simply didn't exist, and that the only teachers represented are geeks? (Who still wear neckties, by the way, even though California teachers had given them up years before.) No student cracks a book, college is never mentioned, and while pot is used as a comic peripheral item, beer, the brew of choice then and now among teenagers, is nowhere to be found.

"Fast Times" was a first-time effort by director Amy Heckerling, who would hit a high-water mark in 1995 with a much better parody of the teen scene, "Clueless." But in "Fast Times" she had to indulge the fatuous characters of Crowe's script, all of whom think only of sex, cars, and cheating on tests, in approximately that order.

The main character is Stacy Hamilton, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is naive, innocent, fifteen, and ready for her first sexual experience. Once she makes it, she sets her eyes on every boy in school. Her best friend is Linda Barrett, a sexually vivacious older mentor played by Phoebe Cates. Ms. Cates's only responsibility is to look good in a bikini, and out of one. However, the real star of the show is forever-stoned Jeff Spicoli ("Hey, bud, let's party!"), played to perfection by Sean Penn. This character would never have gotten through a school day as high and smelling of pot as portrayed in the film, but his winning smile and totally lovable attitude are so disarming we don't care how unbelievable he is. In spite of Penn's going on to become one of Hollywood's finest and most versatile actors, his role as Spicoli would continue to haunt him for years to come. I'm not sure he has completely shaken the persona to this day.

The other characters in the film stick to formula. Judge Reinhold plays Brad Hamilton, Stacy's older brother, a decent, peace-loving senior who wants no more from life than a fry cook's job and sex from his girlfriend. Brian Backer plays Mark "Rat" Ratner, an innocent soul much like Ms. Leigh's character but whose natural bashfulness keeps him the only apparent virgin in the story. Robert Romanus plays Mike Damone, Mark's friend, a snake and a hustler who makes spare change scalping tickets for nearby rock concerts. He looks and sounds in the part like some kind of weaselly New Jersey Mafioso. Ray Walston plays Mr. Hand, the tyrannical history teacher who bursts into Spicoli's bedroom unannounced on the day of the graduation dance and forces him to study with him for hours. It is only by the gracious good will and inherent virtue of Spicoli's sweet spirit that Mr. Hand does not find himself shot for trespassing. Vincent Schiaveli plays Mr. Vargas, the biology teacher, who takes his classes to the local morgue each year to dissect human corpses. You remember doing that in high school, don't you? Funny, we only got frogs.

Anyway, since there's little else to do, you might look for bit parts from other actors before they got famous, among them Forest Whitaker as the star of the football team, and Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Nicolas Coppola (now Cage) as a few no-name guys.

Video:
Universal's picture quality is excellent, very bright, maybe too bright for absolute realism, with definition of equal intensity. The widescreen size is 1.72:1, although there usually isn't as much going on in each frame as we'd like to see.

Audio:
The sound is monaural, a shame considering the abundance of good tunes constantly playing in the background. Aside from that disappointment, the Dolby Digital remastering is reasonably clear and takes care of business.

Extras:
The two major bonus items on the disc are a thirty-nine minute documentary, "Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High," using current interviews with cast and crew to make the film seem more important than it really is, and a full-feature audio commentary by director Heckerling and screenwriter Crowe. Production notes, filmmaker biographies, an interesting video map of locations used in the film, music highlights, English and French language and subtitle choices, and a trailer round out Universal's usual plentiful assortment of extras.

Parting Shots:
Oh, and did I mention that very little beyond Sean Penn's character in "Fast Times" is funny? Just in case, then, very little in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is funny. It's all pretty much by the book, and in this case they needed a funnier one.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
7
Extras
3
Film Value
5