Clueless Review: A Consideration of Different Types of Intelligence

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.

Clueless (1995) - Movie Review / Film Essay

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.

Watch Emma (Movie) | HBO
Weirdly, Gwyneth Paltrow never feels to me like she is aware of having made any mistakes in life at all. Great casting for the first half of Emma, odd casting for the second.

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.

Clueless' broke down barriers and paved the way for today's comedies –  Cinema Femme

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.

33 "Clueless" References You Missed As A Kid | Clueless, Clueless  aesthetic, Jokes

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.

C2E2 2019: Paul Rudd on The Secret To Not Aging - Solzy at the Movies

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”.

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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?

8 thoughts on “Clueless Review: A Consideration of Different Types of Intelligence

  1. Not a Colin Firth fanatic, Paul Rudd all the way! In the movie clueless Cher is younger than her book world counterpart. Thus due to age the chances of her actually staying with her stepbrother, her FIRST serious boyfriend for ever and ever are pretty slim. Also I got the sense she is clearly not done growing. It is hard to say what will happen in her life ahead, unlike Jane Austen’s Emma, Cher’s world is not so small. So I make no predictions.

    YOU MUST WATCH THE 2020 EMMA! Just, watch it. I’ve seen it three times all the way through and I swear I’ve seen the dance scene about 10 times now. The dance scene was lost on the 9 year old. I guess 9 year olds are too young for chemistry. Also, no ick factor in 2020 Emma, even though the actual actors did have a 13 year difference.

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    • I can’t do it! Emma is SUCH a hard read/watch for me! Because I am way more likely to be Emma than any other Austen heroine (rush in to friendships due to overconfidence, accidentally say something insulting/mean, etc.). Clueless doesn’t bother me at all though, I think because Cher’s insecurity is so much closer to the surface than Adult Emma’s, so it is less like me.

      Cher and Paul Rudd FOREVER!!!!! They will keep happily dating while he finishes college and she finishes high school, then he will go to law school and she will start college and they will try a “sensible” break up and she will have flings and fun times and meet people, but then get back together with him by the end of freshman year when they realize no one else makes them really happy. And then they get married after she graduates college and he has his first real lawyer job. And be happy FOREVER!!!!!

      On Sat, Mar 20, 2021 at 9:59 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. oooh yay so excited for this review!! especially since I adore Austen and Aisha is one of my favorite Indian films that changed my life (nobody @ me, I stand by my opinion no matter what).

    So, discussion questions first!
    1. Cher becomes hmmm. I think something in the law, definitely. And I like the idea of Paul Rudd being the stay-at-home dad who sometimes does freelance cases on the side.
    2. Nahhh, they break up. Sorry, Margaret! They’re both too young and while I LOVE the romance in Emma (and honestly, yes, in Aisha too), they just seem “off” here. Both are lovely characters, but I didn’t really like the confession scene (all he could find was “you’re beautiful”, really?) and Cher is right when she says “Freshman Psych rears its head.” Both need to grow up and I feel like break up at least once and it would be lovely to see a fight, not just a cold dismissal when they disagree. Also areas where they totally agree! If, post 25, they get together again, yay! But eh. I’d be better satisfied if it went the other way, with Paul Rudd finding someone maybe like a teacher and Cher finding someone who works with people in the community, etc. Essentially, the chemistry is somewhat there but it needs more plot points to really flesh the story out.
    3. Haven’t seen Bridget Jones, so can’t really comment, but Colin Firth in 1995 P&P, if that counts?

    I loved this paragraph you wrote: “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”.” It reminds me a bit of A Little Princess, a book I recently re-read, where Sara insists that a classmate’s father wants her to KNOW what’s in the books, not necessarily read all the books herself. And that’s the same point. How you get the knowledge is immaterial – what matters is that you have it.

    I love the end of Clueless, as she goes around appreciating art with Christian (I kept retyping his name as Frank, dammit) and noticing the nice things people do around her, especially since the movie starts with her noticing (mostly) the bad things about people, from Amber to how “people are jealous” of her and Dionne. And really, her perspective changes so slowly. She tries to do one good thing for her teachers (selfishly), then for Tai mostly unselfishly (however misguided), and then it leads her to noticing other nice things in people, which snowballs into doing nice things for people on their own terms. It’s such a sweet story – I honestly adore it.

    The only issue with remaking Emma, out of all the Jane Austen novels, in an American setting is that America is so fiercely individualistic and meritocratic (or at least, it is believed to be so), so there is no debate about whether Cher is right or wrong to include Tai in her circle. It is almost immediately seen as being wrong, because she’s just playing with a girl who may not want to change. Whether she fails or succeeds, nobody’s life is ruined and the stakes are much lower (like they would be in Emma the book if Martin had not proposed again). Moreover, Tai would have changed anyway when she moved to a new city and school – which high schooler doesn’t?

    When reading Emma, you see she is incorrect in befriending Harriet and leading her to think outside her station, but you also see her hardheaded practicality makes some sense. She never has to marry for money, but she knows most women do, and encourages them to do it, because it means security. Emma isn’t entirely right, but she isn’t entirely wrong and the reader (and Mr. Knightley) see her point of view. Emma’s friendship could make or break Harriet and everyone knows this (oh man, now I’m wondering what kind of investor Emma would make), so the stakes are much higher and our feelings about Emma much stronger.

    In Clueless, we don’t see Cher behaving with this practicality, everything is a bit too surface-level. She doesn’t dislike the stoners because it leads to bad grades and a bad shot at college (something that would seem very important to an upperclass, 1990s Emma), but merely because they look bad. Similarly, we don’t see WHY she’s making Tai learn better speech, and get a different wardrobe etc., other than the fact that it looks good, when real Emma recognized that while Harriet was dim, she could get a suitably good marriage without hard labor on the credit of her pretty face and good manners. It would be really cool to see Cher casually introducing Tai to some investors, lawyers working with her dad, etc., who already have a good opinion of Cher because they saw her grow up and make it clear to the audience that Cher is remaking Tai into her image, because she’s seen it work in the real world.

    Oh good Lord, I’ve written one of those insanely long comments again, so I’ll desist from writing more. Also, doesn’t this movie seem like one in a series about amazing and feminine women? Clueless, Legally Blonde, and there’s a third, but it’s slipping my mind. Any ideas?

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    • 1. Maybe they both have law careers but when the babies arrive, Paul Rudd realizes he just isn’t as good at the Law, or as in love with it, as Cher. So he offers to be the stay at home primary parent while she keeps expanding her legal clinics for abused women empire.

      2. They are together FOREVER!!!!! As previously described, I vote that they date until he finishes college and she finishes high school. And then they break up before she starts college and he starts law school because it is the “logical” thing to do. She dates a series of guys, has experiences, and he focuses in on being a success at law school. And then at the end of the year she has realized no one makes her as happy as her “boring” old boyfriend, and he has realized that he needs the fun that Cher brings to his life even if it is a “distraction”. And then they are together FOREVER and get married after she graduates college, and he gets a job close to her law school of choice to support her while she goes through school.

      3. I will allow that choice, ALWAYS

      The low stakes are part of what I like about this remake of Emma. The stakes in the original are SO HIGH that you just can’t really recreate them in modern days, romantic relationships are not the make or break center of EVERYTHING. So translating to a rich kids high school means you get the cliques and the hierarchies, but the point is that it really truly doesn’t matter. While in the original Emma, it really truly DID matter. Cher’s journey is to that realization, if she had seen the connection between clothes and hair and real world success, it wouldn’t have had the same meaning. I think in a sequel, we would see Cher make that connection, that if she dresses the right way and talks the right way she can suck money out of the wealthy for her legal clinic for abused women. But right now, she is just sort of fighting towards the idea of reality instead of high school bubble.

      What I remember from her befriending Tai is that the problem is she thinks she is better/wiser/more together than Tai, and she really isn’t. The friendship is unbalanced, she is just doing something to make herself feel better which ends up making Tai feel bad because she has to be something she isn’t. It’s not nearly as big a deal as encouraging someone to try to jump classes in rigid Regency England, but it is still plunging ahead because you think you know the right thing without thinking about the other person at all. And again, I kind of like the unthinking shallowness of it. Cher thinks Tai should be like her because it is the best way to be because it is the way she is.

      And YES! It is totally part of a Third Wave Feminism series of films!!!! I was thinking of Legally Blonde the whole time, that’s totally the future I see for Cher. Still fabulous and loves fashion, but an awesome tough lawyer too. I can also think of Mean Girls, and Easy A, all the way up to the new Hulu series The Great.

      On Sat, Mar 20, 2021 at 10:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems like that type of film too- Holly Golightly is fun-loving and a little shallow and witty and smart but also very strong. She’s comfortable in her skin and isn’t about to change for any reason and Paul respects that about her and loves her for who she is.

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  3. I watched this recently with my kids and what struck me is how much the world has shifted around it. It’s such a product of its time, but in a way that stands up over the years because the heart is good writing and the human relationships between the characters. I remembered Cher as a spoiled, superficial ditz, because of the clothes and the accent (and oh my gosh the computer outfit matcher as the ultimate luxury is so hilariously 90s), which as you said is an intentional first impression, but actually her relationship with her father sets her up as a decent person from the start. That caring, scolding bond anchors her character, it’s fun to watch them play off each other, and later that family version of Cher extends to Josh, which makes her connection to him feel more real. So much of the rest of it – her friends, negotiating her grades, her innocence in romance – just landed very differently on this watch, possibly because I’m old (!) but I think also because the world caught up with Cher’s values in some ways. The social hierarchies did not hold. Not to mention having a story that bakes in class, sexual orientation, feminism, and race – in its light, fluffy way – makes it feel relevant to the youngs in a way the John Hughes movies, for example, do not.

    The other weird bit about time moving on – I had to unearth Alicia Silverstone’s career for my kids (she was a whole thing, here she is in a music video with Liv Tyler, that elf lady from Lord of the Rings), got sad all over again about Brittany Murphy, went looking for what happened to Stacey Dash, meanwhile they knew Donald Faison from Scrubs, and Paul Rudd turned into Paul Rudd (or Antman anyway, to the kids, the funny dude whose time travel saves the universe from Thanos).

    Discussion questions: I don’t think Cher becomes a lawyer. I think she marries a very rich guy and uses his money and her social powers to set up and run a foundation, talking other rich people out of their money for a good cause. The rich guy can’t be Paul Rudd because that would mean he sold his soul and became a corporate lawyer, so they go back to being step siblings and really close friends, and her foundation is the biggest supporter of his pro bono legal work. And if you had asked me in college, I would have gone for Colin Firth, but knowing what we know in 2021, Paul Rudd all the way.

    One question this made me think of: how is Cher different from Reese Witherspoon’s character in Little Fires Everywhere? It feels like that’s one possible future version of the character, not the nicest one.

    Oh, and should probably admit I’ve never read Emma, so have no opinions on the book character, and I don’t think I’ve seen the other Emma movies either. Now I feel like an Austen delinquent.

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    • Yes! This movie really really holds up! When I rewatch John Hughes, I am surprised at how much sexism, racism, classism, and just ugliness is in there. And then you say “yes, but it’s a product of it’s time, and we can appreciate the good and reject the bad, and so on”. But this is a product of its time too! And managed to be super 90s, without being racist or homophobic or any of those other things. It just treated people like people, and that is timeless.

      Hmm. I can’t picture Cher being happy with a typical rich guy, but I can see her with maybe a new style tech millionaire? Someone who is sort of an outsider in the rich people world and not that spoiled and just kind of sweet and nice? Paul Rudd I guess, but a computer version of Paul Rudd. Maybe something cute like he is her father’s client and asks her for help decorating his new rich person house and being made over as a top society person, and then they fall in love, and she ends up telling him he is perfect just as he is? And then he can be all sweet and supportive and nerdy, and she can be all fabulous like she is, and their relationship can make sense to the two of them if not to anyone else. And her daughter can be a STEM genius, and Cher ends up being a super hardcore advocate for women in STEM and early intervention programs and stuff.

      Alternatively, so we can both be happy, Paul Rudd ends up partnering with his dorky college roommate and writing a computer program for, like, legal research and becomes fabulously wealthy.

      On Tue, Mar 23, 2021 at 12:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, I like this version of Cher. She would totally appreciate the geek and make him a better person. And I did kind of have the Melinda Gates or Laura Andreessen model of philanthropist in mind so that works.

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