Amy Heckerling's Clueless, a deceptively modest yet radical screen adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, is the best work to arise from the short-lived trend of taking the direct structures and characters of classic literary and theatrical works and updating them to the world of the modern-day teen. (It's funnier and sports a livelier script than 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew, and certainly finer than Tim Blake Nelson's laborious O, an Othello reinterpretation.) A revision of Austen's tale of spinsterhood, Clueless, upon its release, was also Heckerling's long-awaited return to the realm of the simmering cultural stew that is high school, 13 years after her epochal Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Unlike that bawdy, Cameron Crowe-scripted 1982 classic, which focused less on singular students than on the milieu of relationships that are built, severed, complicated, and perverted by good ol' teenage angst, Clueless has a singular vision of its nevertheless vast portrait of fantastical adolescence, that of alpha-girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone). Employing copious voiceover work, Heckerling turns Austen's heroine into a hyper-modern, hyper-affluent queen bee at a posh California high school who takes it upon herself to fix and fix up every lost soul she encounters.
Flanked by best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), Cher begins by setting up Wallace Shaw's dorky debate teacher with absent-minded politics professor Miss Geist (Heckerling staple Twink Caplan), but the arrival of Tai (Brittany Murphy), a crimson-haired pothead who Cher deems necessary for a makeover of both body and soul, constitutes the pulp of the narrative. And much like Austen's work, the flaws and distinctions that Cher sees in Tai have much to do with class, as the redheaded transfer student comes from a discernibly lower income bracket than Cher and Dionne.
It's part of the reason that Cher (disastrously) insists Tai forget Travis (Breckin Meyer), a charming, perpetually stoned skater, and go for über-snob Elton (Jeremy Sisto), but Heckerling preaches both universal inclusion and self-realization with a startling clarity. Indeed, the choice to make Cher, whose father (the great Dan Hedaya) is a ruthless litigator, an expert convincer, and socialite over, say, a bimbo or an arty know-it-all, allows Heckerling to show a more nuanced, uniquely flawed, and dexterous portrait of popularity and, by extension, the eating order of high school that many films incorrectly diagnose as majorly adversarial.
And like Austen, Heckerling is giddily fascinated by certain traditions, manners, and myths, though hers is as much based on the cultural totems of high school as it is those habits and actions that are distinctly of the affluent West Coaster. This is largely expressed through the outrageous and distinctive fashions, but there's also the beer-and-pot-scented miasma of the Valley party, the stick-up outside of the famed Circus Liquors, the endless malls, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones warehouse party, and Dionne's horrifying first venture onto the California freeway.
As much as it's a great high school movie, Clueless is first and foremost a movie for and of California and this naturally lends itself to being a movie about Hollywood. Shot excellently by Bill Pope, Heckerling's film constantly augments the tired, stereotypical constructs of high school movies, offering a rebuke to the melee of near or full-on nudity, catchphrases, bad pop music, and inconsequential drama that characterize most movies of its ilk. And by not treating her uncredited source material with kid gloves, Heckerling gives more respect and credit to the influence of Austen's tome than Douglas McGrath's beautiful but boring 1996 adaptation. So, when Cher finally realizes that she's "majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love" with Josh (Paul Rudd), it has a casual, almost foolish resonance that stumps nearly every this-is-forever climactic kiss shared by two kids who totally have it all figured out.
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Paramount's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer sports a very impressive overall look. The colors of the outrageous wardrobes pop like jelly beans, but the clarity afforded this package also wonderfully brings out the texture of the outfits. You get an excellent sense of detail, especially in Cher's home and school, with the strewn-about trinkets, clothing, and doo-hickies in her room, or the vast array of bodies moving throughout the locker-lined hallways like busy crosstown traffic. Black levels look nice and inky and there are no major signs of visual manipulation. Audio is also excellent, with dialogue crisp and out front. The film's fantastic soundtrack is balanced nicely with effects in the back of the mix. A solid package, overall.
A deluge of featurettes here partially makes up for the lack of commentary. The best ones deal with the casting, the adapting, and writing of the script, the legacy of the film, and the use of slang in the modern setting of the film; the others are almost entirely disposable but fun enough. The trivia game is, well, a trivia game. Trailers are also included.
Great teen comedies aren't afraid of being or looking foolish, and Paramount's highly admirable transfer of Clueless makes a renewed claim for the film's place in the canon.