Clueless does something interesting. It’s a complete social satire, but director Amy Heckerling makes it so that the jokes can also be taken at face value. On one hand it begs you to notice the commentary it’s making on society, while on the other hand relishes in the idea that the jokes may be all on you. In fact, that’s what makes Clueless so great. It’s a film that makes fun of people who take themselves too seriously, but also accepts the fact that those same people will take IT too seriously. Some satires are too transparent, but what makes this one brilliant is the fact that it’s not.
The film is a modern take on the Jane Austen novel, Emma, which I have not read, but apparently shares a pretty similar plot.
Clueless follows Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a spoiled Beverly Hills teenager who manipulates everyone in her life to give her what she wants. When a new girl, Tai (Brittany Murphy), enrolls into her school, she takes it upon herself to make the girl popular. Things don’t really go how she expects, and in turn, she learns a lot about life and herself.
Cher’s personality is very well developed. She uses big words to sound ostentatious, has a computer to help her pick an outfit for each day, and talks like a stereotypical ’90s girl. Heck she may have invented the stereotypical ’90s girl. She thinks she’s cultured, when she’s really not. If someone is naive according to her pretentious standards, she calls them “clueless”. It’s accepted by everyone because she’s all the way at the top of the food chain due to popularity and money. And she genuinely feels like she is above everyone else. She’s pretty unlikable.
Paul Rudd plays her step-brother, Josh. He’s older and much wiser and more down-to-earth than Cher. A story like this needs some normalcy to ground itself. That’s what Rudd’s character Josh does for it. It’s no surprise Rudd has had the most successful career out of any actor in the film. Every time he’s on screen he shines, and you can’t wait for his return when he’s not in the scene.
Cher is definitely not cultured, even though she thinks she is. But just because Josh is way more cultured than her doesn’t mean that he’s not building up his own sophistication in his head either. Their self-aggrandizement gets put in check when they both realize that perhaps they don’t know the world as well as they think. Socrates used to like to say, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Constantly our society is trying to pretend to know all these things to make themselves look better, when in reality, they end up looking like fools to those who know more. And there is always going to be someone who knows more.
These two characters aren’t the only ones who are “clueless”. Everyone in the film is. That’s the point. We all are. What matters is how you handle and accept this fact. Out of these characters, Cher is, by far, the most clueless, while Josh is the least. They come to accept each other due to their moments of clarity, while many others in between stay stuck in their snootiness. This film may have one of the most fitting titles in the history of cinema.
Over the course of the movie, Cher’s transformation is seamless, making us actually like her by the end. A lesser film would have made her abandon all of her annoying personality traits from the beginning of the movie altogether, writing her as a completely different character by the end. But here, they keep many of her flaws in tact. Since we see her in a new light, they become lovable rather than repulsive.
This movie breaks away from the teen comedy formula and establishes its own. It’s not concerned with getting cheap laughs, but well thought-out ones. You can tell it still keeps the social analysis as its priority while developing a fully engaging story around it, keeping it’s hands on the steering wheel the entire time. It’s intentionally very much stuck in its own universe, much like its characters.
Clueless doesn’t attempt to be timeless–in fact, it stream lines in the complete opposite direction, in turn causing it to be just that. It’s not blatantly poetic like a John Hughes film, but it’s poetic in its own way.