The troubled New York street kids of Kids wouldn’t recognize their Beverly Hills, Calif., counterparts in Clueless, writer and director Amy Heckerling’s sweetly barbed sendup of high school, 90210 style. For the almost 16-year-old Cher Hamilton, deliciously and memorably played by Aerosmith video goddess Alicia Silverstone, sex, drugs and rock & roll take a back seat to power shopping when it comes to conspicuous consumption.
Cher is a daddy’s girl with all the chargecard privileges that implies. Her lawyer father, Mel (Dan Hedaya), has spoiled his baby since her mother died having liposuction. The computer in Cher’s bedroom has browse and dress me controls and a mismatch warning to help her deal with the pressures of her wardrobe. And despite her C average, Cher is nobody’s fool. She has a hold on her virginity that would daunt a school full of gross Tellys. Faced with the looks- and fashion-challenged kids from Kids, Cher would suggest what she always does when someone doesn’t live up to her exacting standards: a make-over.
OK, the plot is inane, Val-gal-speak is a cliché, and Heckerling was more incisive covering similar hormonal ground 13 years ago in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But there’s still wicked good fun to be had. Silverstone is a winner. And so is the movie, which also functions as a lunatic update of Emma, the 1816 Jane Austen novel. Go ahead, laugh. Heckerling wants us in on the joke. Emma would scarcely spy a gentleman entering her father’s parlor and exclaim, as Cher does, “Oh, he’s such a Baldwin.”
In other ways, Austen’s description of Emma is a snug fit for Cher: “The real evils of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think too well of herself.” Austen wrote of Emma’s need to break through her small, indulged world to find a larger, harsher one and forge an identity. Heckerling wants the same for Cher, a control freak with her cellular phone at the ready in class, at the dinner table and on the tennis court. Cher is a major dis queen (“Did I miss something? Is big hair back?”), a knack she’s taught her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash). Cher rules the school, playing matchmaker for two lonely teachers, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), to ease her homework burden. She also does a makeover on grungy transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy), whose later rebellion spells Cher’s downfall.
Love also shakes her security. Though Cher rejects the popular Elton (Jeremy Sisto), she is ready to renounce celibacy for way-cute Christian (Justin Walker) — that is, until she figures out that Christian is gay and she might really be in love with her stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), who thinks Cher is a selfish egoist.
Heckerling doesn’t quite pull off Cher’s character transformation. The materialism in Clueless is almost as scary as the hopelessness in Kids. Whatever. Silverstone is the babe of the moment. And she’s learned how to back up her sexy pout with shrewd comic timing. You think maybe a star in the making doesn’t count for something? As if.