Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Directed by Amy Heckerling.
1982. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Sean Penn
Phoebe Cates
Judge Reinhold
Brian Backer
Robert Romanus
Forest Whitaker
Amanda Wyss
Ray Walston
Anthony Edwards
Nicolas Cage

We get to hang out with some of Ridgemont High’s misguided youth. Like with most high school kids, getting laid is a major objective. A few are into sports, some into drugs, some work, etc. In fact, we spend much of our time at their after-school jobs. Hormones raging ensues.

Since the movie first opened so many years ago, surfer/stoner Spicoli (Penn) has been the character most identified with Fast Times. His face was on all the posters, prominently featured in all commercials and even now adorns the DVD cover. That Spicoli has reached iconic status is a testament to the character and Penn’s performance. Truth is he’s a secondary character with a subplot.

Something similar can be said of the movie’s most enduring moment. Phoebe Cates, as Linda, emerging from the swimming pool is arguably the greatest topless scene of all time. However, its impact on the film is minimal, far less than even Spicoli. Both have become ingrained in American society. Both have proven to be wonderful marketing tools. After not having watched it in well over a decade, those were the first things I thought of.

Honestly, if Spicoli being stoned and Linda removing her bikini top were major factors Fast Times would be a failure. Instead, it succeeds because of its maturity relative to other teen sex comedies. With that in mind, I don’t think it can be overstated that the main character and the director are both female. In most such movies, we focus on a guy from a guy’s perspective. In movies from Porky’s to Superbad sex is the desired end to all their means. Here, it becomes clear early on that for our heroine, Stacy (Leigh), sex is the means she uses to reach a desired end. In fact, we know this before she does. This not-so-subtle flipping of the script gives Fast Times a depth most such movies lack. Gone are the gross-out jokes we expect from these kinds of flicks. They’re replaced by humor derived from every day American teen experiences. Deservedly, it’s become the standard by which other teen sex comedies are judged.

For all of you uninitiated youngsters who haven’t seen Fast Times, yet: don’t let the above paragraph scare you. It’s plenty raunchy and funny. It just does a little more than most of the others of its ilk. Fast Times is also remarkable for its cast. A number of them went on to lengthy careers. Aside from Penn and star Jennifer Jason Leigh, there’s Forest Whitaker, Judge Reinhold and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Nicolas Cage. Cage, Penn and Whitaker gives the movie three future Oscar winners. Leigh was never nominated for Oscar, but is popularly believed to have been snubbed several times.

There’s more goodness beyond the cast. Fast Times was the first feature for director Amy Heckerling. She would go on to direct a number of hit movies, including National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Look Who’s Talking, Look Who’s Talking Too, and Clueless. It’s based on a book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay. He would go on to write and/or direct such movies as Say Anything, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. Simply put, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has much more under the hood than most teen sex comedies. Thirty years later, it still shows.

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