Friday, April 14, 2017

Risky Business (1983)

USA, 99 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Brickman
Photography: Bruce Surtees, Reynaldo Villalobos
Music: Tangerine Dream
Editor: Richard Chew
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca de Mornay, Joe Pantoliano, Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, Nicholas Pryor, Janet Carroll, Richard Masur

My Halliwell's film guide—the strange 2008 edition with Spiderman on the cover—briskly dismisses Risky Business, which it ranks as mediocre, with zero stars: "Would-be outrageous teenage comedy which is pretty well made but soon wears out its welcome." On the other hand, I still remember the byword of a friend on Risky Business at the time: "the thinking man's mindless entertainment." I have always loved it, for bad reasons and good. Lust for Rebecca de Mornay covers most of the bad reasons. But that grudging "pretty well made" from Halliwell's is damn well faint praise for a screenplay this carefully constructed, and so strewn with great lines from scene to scene, with s convincing coming-of-age story along for the ride. Coming of age? In certain lights, Risky Business looks like a journey to wisdom.

The whole thing is premised on something we all know: the utility and the danger of saying, "What the fuck." That's the core of director and writer Paul Brickman's picture, around which he has packed a good many elements, only some of which work though all are at least intriguing: Tom Cruise, Tangerine Dream, Chicagoland, an artsy-fartsy glass egg, Bob Seger, and the Porsche auto brand, to name a few that occur immediately. Tom Cruise plays Joel Goodsen (an easy entry in the obvious name sweepstakes even if it's misspelled), who is an upper-middle-class white boy and high school senior consumed by anxiety about his future. He just doesn't want to make a mistake. He's so afraid of making a mistake that he tries as much as possible to do nothing at all, because he calculates that doing things is when problems start.

But set aside for the moment these themes and small profundities. On another level entirely, Risky Business is a typical '80s teen comedy, with callow white kids, wacky pranks and lewd hijinks, and pop songs of the day dominating the action. In most ways the story moves and behaves like an extended situation comedy plot. Joel's parents are traveling for a short time and Joel has the house in Glencoe, Chicagoland, to himself. His friends want to take advantage, and they also want to move Joel along, the specific focus being to get him laid. After a few mishaps, pratfalls, and hyuks, Joel ends up with the prostitute of his dreams, Lana (de Mornay). But in the morning, he finds out she's more expensive than he expected.

This leads to further problems. In due order, via the magic of coincidence and such, Joel finds himself in conflict with Lana's pimp, a fellow named Guido (Joe Pantoliano). During an encounter with him involving a car chase, Joel's friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong)—who is a lock for Harvard—sums up the situation with a memorable line: "I've got a trig midterm tomorrow and I'm being chased by Guido the killer pimp." This is all good fun, more or less. But Joel was specifically forbidden by his father from even taking out the Porsche, and when it ends up going in the lake, a cascading series of disasters fall down on him like boulders off a mountainside.

For all that, the transformation of Joel Goodsen is subtle and sure even as it practically happens right in front of our eyes. He goes from being tentative and manipulative to owning what he wants and asking for it directly. Or at least he gets better at it. The first image in the movie is the new Joel, remembering the old Joel, with a close-up of Cruise wearing oversize shades, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. In that first scene, he tells about a dream he keeps having, a sex dream that involves a random encounter with a willing and naked anonymous strange girl which morphs into finding himself over two hours late for a three-hour exam. Missing that exam means his life is ruined. Midway through the story, when the house in Glencoe has temporarily been turned into a brothel, we see Joel's confidence on the rise. When he finds some of the girls wearing his mother's clothes he tells Lana, "I just don't want to spend the rest of my life in analysis. Could you talk to them, please?"

At the end of the movie, the same Joel Goodsen from the beginning, in the shades with the cigarette, expresses himself this way: "I deal in human fulfillment." That narrative arc is nearly perfectly executed across the length of this movie. It's a well done coming-of-age story, which is not something that's really required of teen comedies. And there are even more elements surprising to find in a teen comedy. A notable one is the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It's not the only music here, and in fact a Phil Collins song, "Something in the Air," is nearly as effective at setting a mood. But infusing a teen comedy with Tangerine Dream moodworks was bold and still feels unusual. Tangerine Dream is not exactly unknown, but they've never had hits. And if they had already done at least two memorable soundtracks, Sorcerer and Thief, those were stylish thrillers, not teen comedies. I'm not sure any of the dozens of movies they've scored since are comedies of any kind.

But in the end, what I like best about Risky Business is the transformation, seeing what happens when somebody once in a while says "What the fuck" ("What the heck" is what Joel's more mild-mannered father says). Early on, Joel's friend Miles explains the mechanics: "'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future." Lana has a version of this philosophy too—and so do others. Saying "What the fuck" is everything that makes this movie great. It's the air that this movie breathes.


  1. I hated this movie when it came out. Couldn't see why I should be interested in a movie where the key question was whether or not the rich kid got into Princeton. Maybe I should finally give it another try.

  2. I'm somewhere in the middle--but moving closer to Steven when you factor in its role in giving "Old Time Rock and Roll" a second life. (I'd count lust for Rebecca de Mornay among the good reasons for liking it.)

  3. Ah, Rebecca de Mornay ... the best thing to ever come out of Wally George.