Like an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210” on helium, “Clueless” is a fresh, disarmingly bright and at times explosively funny comedy well worth a trip to the mall, even if it eventually runs out of gas. Establishing some big-time star credentials for teenage icon Alicia Silverstone, pic will have teens lining up in droves through the summer, though more discriminating audiences will need to tune in reviews and positive word of mouth or else be scared off by Paramount’s in-need-of-a-clue ad campaign, which makes this look like a typical teen comedy. As if. “Clueless” carries on the tradition of movies “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Dazed and Confused” in skewering the social strata of teen life, here taking advantage as well of the exaggerated rich-kid setting, where spoiled teens call each other on cellular phones as they parade down the halls.
Taking her (uncredited) inspiration from Jane Austen’s novel “Emma,” writer-director Amy Heckerling (who also directed “Fast Times”) has a dead-on ear for the updated “Valley Girl” dialogue with a Beverly Hills-Westside twist.
Pic serves notice right away that it’s not your average dull-witted teen howler when Cher (Silverstone) hooks up with her best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash), who, she says in her stream-of-consciousness voiceover, shares the distinction of being named after a popular ’70s singer who now hosts infomercials.
The only child of a widowed corporate lawyer (played with gruff charm by Dan Hedaya), Cher finds there are few situations she can’t talk her way out of, down to manipulating her teachers into a romance to mellow them out enough to get better grades.
Cher’s big project, however, is Tai (Brittany Murphy), a fashion victim who clearly needs a clue. Taking it upon herself to elevate the new kid into the popular elite, she begins a wholesale makeover that eventually leads her in a small way to examine her own persona, including her relationship with Josh (Paul Rudd), the son of her father’s ex-wife by a former marriage. (That means the two aren’t related at all, though the distinction was clearly lost on some members of the preview audience.)
Though unlikely to win many fans on Capitol Hill, it’s somewhat refreshing to see these teens casually drinking, smoking pot and talking about sex, forgoing the by-now expected “Just say ‘No’ ” lectures. Still, that may be easier for even critics to inhale in light of the cartoonish nature of the characters.
Heckerling gets the most out of her youthful cast, beginning with Silverstone , who’s not only adorable but possesses a real comic flair. Though her choice as the MTV Movie Awards’ newcomer of the year seemed like something of a joke in 1993 (“The Crush” was a rather reprehensible movie), she certainly lives up to that promise here.
The rest of the youthful ensemble is stocked with fresh faces, and Heckerling gets occasional laughs even from the few adults allowed to populate this world, among them Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan (the pic’s associate producer).
“Clueless” does stumble a bit toward the end. It’s hard to maintain such manic energy, and the story seems to have little idea where it’s going before settling on a rather pat conclusion.
Even so, the movie emerges as a breath of fresh air in a summer where most of the comedy has been formulaic. Tech credits are also superb, down to the outlandish costumes, carefully chosen song score and opulent Beverly Hills estates — gaudy enough to make even the Clampetts and the brats on “90210” eat their collective hearts out.