In dark times, movies can make us feel better; particularly romantic comedies, and particularly romantic comedies in which everyone has an impossibly goofy smile and the sun constantly shines and everything’s right with the world. As it happens, just such a movie is celebrating a milestone birthday this year: “Clueless,” written and directed by Amy Heckerling, is a movie that should come with its own tagline: Lightening Everyone’s Spirits Since 1995.
I’m a little early with the quarter-century celebration — “Clueless” initially came out in July — but this just seemed like the right moment: A lot of us these days might find ourselves rewatching and rereading. In a time when our social contacts are pretty much limited to the people living with us, hanging out with a favorite movie or book expands that circle. It feels comfortably familiar — like meeting up with an old friend and laughing over the same things you’ve always laughed at, like safety in a storm. And you just can’t rewatch “Clueless” and not feel happier. Its sparkly pop score wraps around you; its charming young cast (and oh, they look young, like a lot of us did in 1995) pulls you in and makes you part of their crowd.
Based loosely on Jane Austen’s “Emma” (a lovely film adaptation of which, coincidentally, recently opened in theaters and is now available for streaming), “Clueless” is the story of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), a sunny blonde teenager who lives in Beverly Hills with her wealthy attorney father (Dan Hedaya). Self-absorbed but charmingly so, Cher loves to matchmake (two of her teachers at Bronson Alcott High), do makeovers (her “adorably clueless” new friend Tai), and toss her hair around in the presence of her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd). We immediately see Josh and Cher are meant to be together — and that Rudd, then and now, is a dreamboat — but it takes Cher a while to figure this out, along the way finding that she needs to make herself a better person.
But a description doesn’t convey how deliciously funny this movie is, or how Silverstone plays Cher as if she’s happily floating on helium, or how the language of “Clueless” set off a giddy bomb that still resonates today. Heckerling’s screenplay is a masterful blend of high school dramatics — “Suddenly a dark cloud settled over first period” — and screwball comedy, sprinkled with teenspeak spice. (Did we say “What-ever” and “As if” before this movie?)
And the frothy fashions — plaid miniskirts, knee socks, cropped cardigans, little high-collared dresses, fanciful hats — remain a happy rainbow. I don’t think high school students ever dressed like this (maybe it was different in Beverly Hills?) but it’s a kick to imagine they did. To this day, I can’t hear the name of Azzedine Alaïa without mentally adding “a totally important designer.”
“Clueless” was originally planned to be a TV show until Heckerling’s agent convinced her that it was meant to be a movie. In the grand tradition of so many iconic films, every major studio initially passed on the product, but the approval of superproducer Scott Rudin, who liked the script, helped open doors. Silverstone, just 17 when she got the part (a young Reese Witherspoon was briefly considered for it), was then little known, as was most of the cast. It opened in theaters in July 1995 — and became an instant hit.
Rewatching it today, the parallels with “Emma” are fun to track, though you don’t need any knowledge of Austen to enjoy the movie. Cher is, of course, Emma Woodhouse, the well-off young woman whose years in the world had brought “very little to distress or vex her.” Josh is Emma’s older relative by marriage (who becomes a love interest) George Knightley, Tai is Emma’s protégé Harriet Smith, cheerful stoner Travis Birkenstock is the farmer Robert Martin, smitten teachers Mr. Hall and Miss Geist are Mr. and Mrs. Weston, and popular boy Elton is Mr. Elton, the popular vicar. It’s not a precise adaptation, but an “inspired by” homage; you imagine Miss Austen, who appreciated a piquant turn of phrase and a well-trimmed hat, might approve.
It’s amusing to note how many things that seemed absurd in 1995 are now commonplace (multiple cellphones at the dinner table, for example) and vice versa (pay phones right where you need them), and to be reminded that Oscar-nominated actor Mark Wahlberg was once Marky Mark, who “might take time from his busy pants-dropping schedule” to plant a tree for a college fundraiser. And it’s poignant to realize not everyone from that high school crowd is still with us: Brittany Murphy, who played Tai (and who gave such withering spin to the movie’s ultimate insult, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive”), died tragically in 2009, aged just 32.
But mostly, watching “Clueless” is simply joyful. Within its effervescent silliness is a story about taking care of those you love and helping to make the world a little better — what could possibly be more timely? For Cher, according to best pal Dionne (Stacey Dash), doing makeovers “gives her a sense of control in a world full of chaos.” Revisiting “Clueless” just might, for a few too-fleeting but treasured moments, do the same for you.