I am so glad I was reminded of this movie! It is one that, I think, deserves way WAY more critical analysis. And I think DCIB is the place to give us that analysis!
The key to Clueless comes late in the film. Our heroine has had kind of a breakthrough moment and starts to think about if she adds any value to the world, has anything that is “real” for her. And she goes through her friends and thinks about what makes them “real”. One of them really truly loves art, and is smart about it and can explain it. The long term dating couple are legitimately sweet together, there’s respect and love and healthiness there. Her teachers, they really legitimately CARE about their students. And so on and so forth, she thinks about all the people in her world and sees all the different ways they contribute, and then tries to figure out how she can contribute, what she has.
This is why the title is “Clueless”. It’s kind of a double-blind. We start out thinking that the joke is our heroine is “clueless” and thinks she has the world on a string just because she can wear fancy clothes and things. And then the point is that NO ONE is really “clueless”, don’t write folks off because they don’t fit your surface definitions, everyone can provide value in different ways.
Clueless is a remake of the Austen novel Emma, and what Amy Heckerling did was strip out everything else and really look at who Emma is as Austen wrote her, and think about how that woman would behave in the modern world. Emma’s defining trait is that she is In Charge. And her second defining trait is that she isn’t really In Charge at all. She gives advice to all her friends, she is rich and respected and sort of the Queen Bee of her town. She has high standards for herself, she intends to be kind and welcoming and so on and a benevolent Queen Bee, but she absolutely thinks of herself as the person who should be in control of the social world. But her incredible confidence means she has huge blind spots. She misses it when someone falls in love with her, and when she falls in love with someone “perfect” who isn’t interested in her. She misses it when she clearly gives bad advice to her friend. Most of all she misses all the things she doesn’t see about her self, the desires she won’t admit, the guilt she won’t let herself feel, and so on. And then Emma’s redemption is a delight, because she stays In Charge. She doesn’t say “I made mistakes, I’m giving up”, she says “I made mistakes, I’m going to buckle down and fix them. She was “clueless”, but now she is clued in.
That was in a very particular time and place. In modern day Southern California, modern day Emma has to deal with constant pressure to be pretty, to be non-threatening, to be “cute”. She still is fiercely intelligent and a natural leader who will compete and rise to the top in her social circle, it’s just a super different social circle with very different standards for women. Emma’s flaws are the same, her dangerous over-confidence thanks to her easy success in so many areas leads to all kinds of errors of judgement. But her greatest virtues are still there too, her willingness to self-examine and self-correct, and her intense generosity and care for her friends.
Emma the novel is internal, it’s written for people in that world from within that world. But Clueless is introducing the greater world to this land of rich high school kids and craziness. That’s what sticks in the mind immediately, all the many many quotable quotes, the immediately recognizable costuming, and the very high school world of who has had sex and who hasn’t, and who can drive, what college are you going to, and the whole Mall Land kind of setting. That’s on purpose, we get all this hilarious difference stuff thrown in our eyes to blind us to the essential humanity. We start the novel Emma believing, like Emma does, that she is smart and perfect and so on. We start the movie Clueless thinking that our heroine Cher is basically useless. We keep thinking that for about the first third of the film. She is sweet to her Dad, and nice to her friends, and welcomes new girl in school Tai, but overall just doesn’t seem like she knows anything beyond the high school world where she lives. And then in the middle of all of this, she has her first big failure when the guy she wanted for Tai instead hits on her, which is humiliating and uncomfortable and a little scarey. Suddenly we aren’t laughing at Cher any more, we care about her and worry about her. And we strangely have started to respect her, to see that she may have an unusual knowledge base, but that doesn’t mean she is dumb. Which means by the time Cher herself comes to decide she is shallow and needs to be better, the audience actually is rooting for her! We think she is underselling herself, we think she is less “clueless” than she thinks she is.
In the Regency era, when an upperclass woman’s job was to do emotional labor, Emma was respected as a “good” woman. Today, when upperclass women are expected to have advanced degrees and worldly achievements, our modern Emma is undervalued by the audience viewing her as bad at school, no ambition, and so on. And she undervalues herself a little bit too, she focuses so hard on the superficial in order to avoid her feelings of emptiness underneath, her lack of any serious relationship, her inability to take the driving test, and so on.
And that brings me back to the center piece of the film, the moment when Cher looks around herself in a new way and thinks about what gives people value. If she can find value with her friends for being in a healthy relationship, for caring about their students, and so on, then that means she can find value for herself without turning herself into something totally different from what she is. She doesn’t have to make herself over into a “smart” girl or stop caring about clothes, she just has to expand the warm caring understanding for other people she already feels into a new direction. The best part of her life change when she is running a donation drive for disaster relief is her response to the stoner who comes to donate his bong. Cher doesn’t embarrass him, she is sincerely grateful and kind and also gently encouraging of his decision to get rid of his drug paraphernalia. That’s what makes Cher special, she can make the person right in front of her feel good about themselves.
In most Austen stories, and in most stories with female protagonists in general, the love interest is the co-lead, everything revolves around the spark between the two. Emma, and Clueless, is different. It is about the heroine struggling with herself. If anyone is the co-lead, it is her new friend from out of town more than any romantic lead. Clueless expanded on that by expanding the heroine’s friend base. Cher loves her Dad, her friend Dionne, her new friend Tai, and eventually her even newer friend Christian. Cher has people in her life, but there is no one person that inspires her journey, she inspires her own journey. The most important thing the love interest does is simply, nothing. He has always been there, he has not changed in anyway, but she has changed, and now they can come together.
Paul Rudd is AMAZING in Clueless. I won’t say he makes the movie, the love interest is far less important than other elements, but he certainly makes the love interest work. You need to believe him as smart, as older, but still growing, still with his own insecurities and things to figure out. Most of all, he has to just feel easy. Cher keeps struggling with herself through out the story, figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. But Paul Rudd has no struggle. She can just hang with him, just talk and act without thinking. He may judge her and make fun of her, but he does it in his soft smiling Paul Rudd way, so we know he doesn’t really mean it, he isn’t really scary, he will always be around.
There’s no way around the ick-factor with the Emma romance. The idea is that our heroine always tries to put her best face forward, to do right by the enormous responsibilities she feels in the world, but there is one person who can get under her skin because he has known her from back before she felt she had those responsibilities. It has to be someone a little closer than any potential love interest really should be. In the novel, it is a family friend who is much MUCH older and has known her since birth (ick!). I find Paul Rudd as “former stepbrother” a lot less icky myself. Especially because his very presence in the house tells us something about Cher’s family, that he is a former stepbrother but Cher’s father cares enough about him to let him keep coming around, and that Cher tacitly goes along with this too. They take responsibility for the people around them.
And Paul Rudd is part of the other possible central moment of the film. No, not their romantic kiss when he tells her she isn’t just a dumb high school girl like that person thinks, they don’t know her. It’s when he picks her up from the party along with his pretentious college girlfriend who miss-quotes Hamlet and Cher corrects her. No, Cher hasn’t read the play or learned the deeper meaning or any of that. But she saw the movie and she remembers the dialogue. She learned it in a different way, but by golly she learned it! And she learned it RIGHT. Paul Rudd’s college girlfriend has all the trappings of intelligence, but she isn’t actually as smart. She is posing, just like Cher is posing. Cher is playing “dumb”, this young woman is playing “smart”. Don’t go by appearances. Don’t assume you know who is really “Clueless”.
Now, Discussion Questions:
Is Cher going to grow up and turn into an pro bono family rights attorney, or grow up and turn into an amazing full time homemaker for Paul Rudd who always looks after all the kids in the neighborhood and visits the shut ins and is super involved in local protests and stuff?
Are Cher and Paul Rudd going to stay together forever and ever? (“yes” is the only acceptable answer)
If you can only pick one, Paul Rudd in this or Colin Firth in Brigette Jones?