“Clueless” Comes Of Age

When Amy Heckerling set out to make a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, few imagined that the director would create a new classic — and one of the most quoted films ever. The Alicia Silverstone comedy turns 18 years old today, but let’s be honest: Clueless is timeless.

Still of Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, and Brittany Murphy in Clueless IMDB

Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, inspired by the winking spirit of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, was released in theaters 18 years ago today, which means that it has officially reached adulthood. For a movie about the vapidity of adolescence, the fact that nearly two decades have come and gone since Clueless first hit theaters cuts through me like a knife.

I was nearly 18 years old when the Alicia Silverstone film came out, and I saw it on opening weekend, a hot July night in 1995, the summer before I went to college. I don’t think anyone anticipated that the film would become a sleeper hit (it grossed $11 million on its opening weekend, way ahead of estimates), nor that it would go on to spawn a lexicon of its own — with its “Barneys” and “Bettys,” the use of “As if!” as a viable rejoinder to any argument — but for those of us who discovered the film in those days, it was like a bright light was being shined directly into the inner chambers of our hearts.

Clueless, first and foremost, was smart. It may have traded Regency-era England for 1990s Beverly Hills, but it managed to retain the spark of both Austen’s titular heroine and the flintiness of the novel’s romantic comedy plot, which presents naïve Emma Woodhouse as a self-made Cupid who is, in actuality, a selfish meddler who needs to learn what love really is, even as she plays at making couples out of those around her. A few broken hearts and a sudden realization — that she loves her romantic sparring partner, Mr. Knightley — later, and Emma is both humbled and bowled over by love. She is transformed by the experience, and her romantic adventure mirrors her psychological development. Emma moves into adulthood, and so too does Austen’s “gentle reader” in a way.

In Clueless, Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz is far less the genteel loner that Emma Woodhouse is portrayed as within Austen’s original work; Cher is a member of a rarefied tribe of well-heeled Beverly Hills teens, whose excess is a far cry from the more simple and pastoral pleasures of Highbury. She selects her outfits with the help of a computer program, her closet a revolving pleasure palace of sartorial choice. Despite not having a driver’s license, she owns a Jeep of her own, cruising around town with her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash), the two girls the envy of all they encounter.

While both Cher and Emma are motherless and saddled with a father who refuses to listen to the advice of doctors, Cher is, in her own way, far more independent than Emma. Her attempts at matchmaking come less from boredom than as a means to her own ends. In order to achieve a better grade, she enacts a plot to set up her stickler debate teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn), with lonely Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), figuring if Mr. Hall gets a “good old-fashioned boinkfest,” he’ll relax. But for her savvy at matchmaking, Cher herself is oblivious to the advances of Cranberries-loving Elton (Jeremy Sisto), and attempts to push him and newcomer Tai (the late Brittany Murphy) together, which backfires most spectacularly. Her cluelessness, however, is just a stage before realization: that she needs to be a better person, that she does care for Josh (Paul Rudd), that it’s time to grow up and move past her selfishness… and allow her friends to be happy in the ways that they need, rather than according to her own wants.

Despite all this, Clueless should seem incredibly dated (the clothes!), but it doesn’t. It probably helps that underneath the trappings of the 1990s is a timelessness that allows the film to seem fresh and vibrant, even today. And that unique lexicon, which spawned a vernacular that continues to hold today, also helps; there’s a rhythm and flow to the dialogue that is mesmerizing and the characters exist in a state of such hyper-real ridiculousness, that the whole thing seems fantastical. I’ve been watching Clueless for 18 years now — I can practically recite the entire film by heart at this point.

Like the world that it depicts, Clueless is trapped in amber: Its sharpness never dulls, its humor never wanes, and its characters never age. Everything moves on but the movie remains ageless. Within the film, Cher will always be young and blithe; Alicia Silverstone is now a mother who apparently likes to regurgitate her food and feed it to her young. Baby-faced Paul Rudd is now a fortysomething movie star. Brittany Murphy, so sweetly tart as Tai Frasier, unexpectedly died in 2009. Justin Walker, who played the object of Cher’s lust, Christian Stovitz, now owns a restaurant in Rancho Mirage, California. Breckin Meyer and Jeremy Sisto barely resemble themselves, 18 years on. (Stacey Dash, however, has not aged in real life. I imagine that there is some Dorian Gray-style painting of her hanging in an attic somewhere.)

Like the actors, I too am getting older. Clueless has been there through many milestones in my life — graduating high school, moving between countries, meeting my future wife, repeated viewings through my twenties, and through city and career changes — and a recent rewatch of the film (coincidentally at another milestone, as my wife and I are about to have our first child) had me marveling at the way it holds up time after time.

Perhaps it is because there is an inherent sweetness to Heckerling’s film, lovingly tended to beneath the sarcastic one-liners and the high-fashion clothes, and an optimism that mirrors the dizzying possibility of the young. Even though the film has come of age, ultimately Clueless is the rare movie that never gets old, remaining tantalizingly, pleasingly forever young.

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