With a pitch-perfect performance from precocious eighteen-year-old music video starlet Alicia Silverstone and a sharp, sassy, knowing script from writer-director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Clueless steps right to the head of the class of high school comedies, surpassing even Heckerling's own previous foray into that perilous territory back in 1982. Not as dark as Heathers but edgier, funnier, and more self-assured than any other teen satire in years, Clueless passes with flying colors.

Meet Cher (Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash), two fifteen-year-old Bettys who seem to have it all: youth, money, beauty, popularity, and most important, cell phones. Bearing in mind that the material they're tackling isn't exactly Shakespeare, both Silverstone and Dash still seem too young to act this assuredly. They repeatedly deliver deadpan dialogue with such fluid ease that many in the audience no doubt will assume the actresses are just playing themselves. Ditto most members of the supporting ensemble cast of gifted barely-knowns. And yet director Heckerling has demonstrated her nose for sniffing out promising young talent; her Fast Times at Ridgemont High afforded Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards their first motion picture roles. (The kids don't get all the best lines, though. Dan Hedaya, who plays Cher's gruff, ferocious father, a feared litigator and widower -- Cher's mom died of complications from liposuction surgery -- with a soft spot for his daughter, gleefully filches most of his scenes. "What's with you, kid?" he interrogates a flashy young man he presumes to be Cher's suitor. "You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?")

Anyway, this pair of Beverly Hills high schoolers became best friends because, as Cher puts it, they're "both named after great singers of the past," and because "we both know what it's like for people to be jealous of us." While the film's lighthearted title and advertising campaign should clue in potential viewers that probing analysis of adolescent angst and in-depth examination of serious issues confronting today's kids are not on the menu, Heckerling's casual treatment of an interracial friendship (Cher is white, Dionne is black) is refreshingly unselfconscious. Heckerling and her two leading actresses make it seem perfectly natural that a WASP princess and an African-American debutante could be bosom buddies in a milieu in which the tiniest blemish threatens one's place in the social order. The only colors that matter in Cher and Dionne's world are gold and platinum -- as in credit cards.

As the film opens, Cher faces two big problems -- a "C" grade in debate class (she reassures her concerned father it's "just a jumping-off point for negotiations") and excessive homework from another teacher. Frustrated by her inability to talk her way into a better grade or a lighter workload, Cher conspires with Dionne to play Cupid with the two uncooperative educators causing her problems. Sure enough, a little romance softens up the teachers' demands, further consolidating Cher's and Dionne's popularity among their classmates. Bolstered by this success, Cher tackles a bigger challenge -- making over recently arrived transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy in a performance that feels as if a few crucial transitional scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor). "Cher's main thrill in life is makeovers," explains Dionne. "It gives her a sense of control in a world of chaos."

Tai is quite a project; she dresses in baggy jeans and flannel, watches so much TV she knows the words to the Mentos jingle by heart, and immediately falls for a stoner skateboarder who is way outside Cher's prescribed circle of approved potential boyfriends. Yet Cher is no quitter; against all odds, her makeover of Tai succeeds. But the makeover queen's crowning success backfires as Tai's popularity begins to threaten Cher's own.

Cher's world begins to unravel. Elton (Jeremy Sisto), the guy she handpicked for Tai, has the hots for Cher. Meanwhile Cher sets her sights on suave Christian (Justin Walker), the only high school guy she has deigned cool enough to relieve her of her virginity. But the dating expert has miscalculated once again; Christian is more interested in watching old Tony Curtis movies with her than in making love. Cracks appear in the supremely confident young woman's satin-smooth faaade. "I don't get it," she muses. "Did my hair go flat? Did I stumble into some bad lighting?"

Most unnerving to Cher is her burgeoning attraction to Josh (Paul Rudd), her nerdy, altruistic ex-stepbrother. They are all wrong for each other; his wardrobe runs to Amnesty International T-shirts, he reads Nietzsche, and he listens to "complaint rock." To her considerable surprise, Cher realizes that even she, the dream girl of every straight boy in Beverly Hills, can be clueless when it comes to love. That may not be the most dramatic revelation in motion picture history, but it's consistent with the movie's overall breezy tone and reinforces writer-director Heckerling's obvious affection for all her characters.

Clueless is like a kinder, gentler version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a Republican-friendly portrayal of high school. The film gently skewers materialism and a few obvious pop culture targets (Marky Mark references fall flat, but for the most part the punch lines are surprisingly topical). Heckerling prefers ingratiating to grating. The only controversy Clueless is likely to stir up is whether Alicia Silverstone has the acting range to tackle more challenging roles (don't bet against her).

No pesky subplots about abortion interrupt the sight gags and one-liners as they did in Fast Times. Nor do suicide, depression, bulimia, or gang violence figure into the mix. Heckerling even mutes the drug use and casual sex, those staples of the genre. The times, they are a-changin' -- Fast Times at Ridgemont High glorified prodigious pot smoking and elevated an incorrigible doper (Spicoli) to the level of antihero; Clueless's token chronic user sees the error of his ways and ultimately donates his favorite bong to disaster relief. (More could be made of the differences between the two films if it weren't for the fact that Heckerling merely directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High; she didn't write it.)

You could quibble with Heckerling's decision to make such an innocuous movie about a potentially loaded subject, but (Marky Mark gags aside) Clueless strikes far more comic targets than it misses. Occasional gaps in story continuity and character development (especially Tai's change of heart) probably owe more to editing-room decisions to limit the film's running time than to Heckerling's oversight. And you'll see most of the plot developments coming way before the characters do. But it won't matter; you'll laugh hard enough to forgive the movie its shortcomings. This film may not be as ambitious as another current release, the notorious Kids, which received an NC-17 rating for its graphic and realistic depictions of rampant drug use and unsafe sex among teens. But don't underestimate the guiding intelligence behind Heckerling's film.

Clueless? As if.

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