Monday, November 2, 2009

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Supposedly setting the tone for every teen movie to come out after its 1982 release, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a film that I have pretended not to like for the past couple of decades. (Its status as a universally beloved entity has always fraudulently annoyed me.) Well, I'm proud to say that those days are almost over. No, seriously, they're totally over. As of this day, I'm officially coming out as a fan of this somewhat humourous ode to degrading employment, after school change room copulation and quickie abortions. I'll admit, from the moment Amy Heckerling's adolescent-friendly camera pokes its head through the glass doors of Ridgemont Mall (Sherman Oaks Galleria and Santa Monica Place), and we hear The Go-Go's "We Got The Beat" blasting on the soundtrack, I was hooked. Quickly introducing us to the film's many youthful characters, this opening salvo immediately gives the audience a solid sense of the school's social infrastructure before even any of them has the chance open their mouth. However, when they do start flapping their gums and reciting scripted dialogue, whether it be about oral sex technique or the importance of wearing a shirt in a fast food dining environment, the results are always mildly illuminating.

Boasting a sort of meandering approach when it came to dispensing nuggets of plot, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, is basically about sex, freedom, and tasty waves (despite the fact the ocean isn't seen outside of a marijuana-fueled dream). The sex segment (naturally) is the most important subject out of the three, in that it concerns almost every character in the film. Although in this case, it mainly relates to Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates), two girls who work at a pizzeria, Mark (Brian Backer), a shy guy who is the assistant to the assistant manager at the mall's movie theatre ("smoking's upstairs to your left"), and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), a smooth talking fella who sells overpriced tickets to rock concerts (he's also an amateur bookmaker). The levelheaded Linda mostly gives humping advice and interrupts sham pirates while their masturbate, so it actually focuses on the unintended love triangle that forms between the other three I mentioned.

The film's freedom angle is generated by Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), an always employed high school senior who is looking to extricate himself from whatever mind-numbing job he is currently doing at the time and cut loose his longtime girlfriend. Of course, these things get accomplished in a manner he did not expect. And the tasty waves bit, well, that primarily is the arena of one Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). This surfing enthusiast and all-around party animal engages in a bit of a non-surfing battle with Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), a time weary history teacher.

While the sex section is all about melodrama (and how guys are pricks), and the freedom chapter concerns pre-millennial angst, the Spicoli part is pure comedy. Sure, the sight of Mr. Reinhold in his goofy fish restaurant garb is kinda funny, as are the antics of an under-caffeinated science teacher (Vincent Schiavelli) and a pair of over-caffeinated cheerleaders with way too much school spirit (Kelli Maroney and Pamela Springsteen), but it's the normally pompous Sean Penn who is off-the-hook in terms of stoner hilarity. His, "hey, I know that dude," nonchalant interaction with Mr. Pizza Guy (Taylor Negron) and mock playing of a drum cymbal during "Wooly Bully" are watermarks when it comes to cinematic buffoonery.

Now, the thing that has always bothered me about this film has been the fact it fails utilize the pop culture of the day. Saturated with a seemingly unending deluge of smug references to dinosaur rock from the sixties and seventies, the film repeatedly goes out of its way to make allusions to these outmoded bands and artists at every turn. When instead it should be chock-full of post-punk, new wave and synth-pop. You know, like, Valley Girl and The Last American Virgin. The only aspect that reflects the era musically is the wall of Mike Damone's bedroom, as it's plastered with posters of The B-52's, Devo, and even oddities like the Suburban Lawns.

Luckily, this obsession with arena rock can't sully the red bikini-ed magnificence that is the sight of a taut Phoebe Cates existing a backyard swimming pool in slow motion to the instrumental strains of The Cars' "Moving In Stereo." The sound of Greg Hawkes' keyboard* lushly humming as the gorgeous actress gingerly unfastened her swimsuit top is the stuff of semi-nude legend.

I cannot believe there was a time when I used to think this scene was overrated, and focused my praising gaze toward the subtle acting of the justifiably esteemed Jennifer Jason Leigh. Well, thankfully, that person doesn't work here anymore. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a fan of Leigh's performance (she makes getting deflowered in a dilapidated dugout seem like an exercise in extreme torment). It's just that I like to think that I have matured a lot as a viewer of things. Which means that I can safely declare the Phoebe Cates bikini pool scene to be awesome with nary a hint of irony.

Since this was my eleventh or so screening of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I couldn't help but notice the stellar work of Blair Tefkin (V) as Pat Bernardo, one of the three girls who have "cultivated" the Pat Benatar look at Ridgemont High. You see, every time I look at a film, I end up coming away with something different. And this time around my unparalleled gaze seemed to focus on the girl dressed as the short-haired rock enchantress.

Sexily attired in a regalia of headbands, tight red and black sweaters, and many leg revealing skirts, I couldn't take my eyes off her every time she appeared on-screen. (I loved the closeup shot of her left thigh as she went to check the cheat sheet she had scribbled on it.)

I was truly fascinated by her dedication to the Pat Benetar look. I mean, I remember seeing people who copied the clothing of celebs and artists back when I was roaming the halls (the red cod piece worn by Larry Blackmon was all the rage at my dump of a school), but never once did I see anyone go to the lengths that this gal goes to look like a famous person.

* After watching it again recently, I couldn't help but notice that Greg Hawkes' keyboard is pretty much nonexistent on the version of "Moving in Stereo" used in the film. I know there were a couple of other things I should have been focusing on while I watched the pool sequence. But still, I was quite disturbed by the lack of Mr. Hawkes' synthesizer.



  1. With the exception of Three O'Clock High and some of the John Hughes films, I just have so many issues with the "high school" genre that I've never cared for supposedly iconic films like this one.

    Sean Penn's character always annoyed me, and while she's admittedly purty, the Phoebe Cates scene barely registered. I think I was only reminded of it by all the horny guys on RT. :P

    I get sad when I think of Ben Orr.

  2. Aren't you a fan of The Wild Life? Nah, I'm probably thinking of someone else.

    I'll admit, I became a Fast Times through sheer attrition.

    With the exception of the film's poster, I didn't include any screencaps of Sean's character out of respect for your annoyance. Just kidding, I wasn't aware of your annoyance. ;)

    Don't tell any of those horny RT guys, but the scene where the Pat Benatar look-a-like checks the test answers written on her leg is way sexier than Phoebe-pool scene.

    My respect and admiration for Ben Orr increased tenfold when I started to delve deeper into The Cars' catalog.

  3. Great writeup on this film. I haven't seen this movie in years. I watched it quite a few times back in the 80's with my buddies. Sean Penn's character always got on my nerves. But then Sean Penn gets on my nerves. lol

  4. Oh, my God, I heard Haysi Fantayzee on the radio today! And the CanCon station really likes the new Hugh Dillon song. (Speaking of Hugh, I wish CBS would bring back Flashpoint sooner rather than later.)

    We're still behind on Jeopardy! episodes.

    As a general rule, I don't like characters like Spicoli, Bueller. You know, the types that don't take school seriously. :P The Wild Life? Not I.

  5. Keith: I always had this strange idea that Spicoli was universally beloved. Weird.

    Kamir Amir: "Shiny Shiny" has slowly become one go to songs whenever I feel the urge to irritate and enlighten others.

    I hear they advertise Hugh Dillion's new album during episodes of Flashpoint; which is currently airing on CTV. :P

    The Teen Tournament is in full swing at the moment.

    You probably just said that you preferred The Wild Life more than Fast Times. Which ain't exactly a ringing endorsement.

    I suppose you think Casey Siemaszko takes school seriously because he works at the school's stationery store. ;)

  6. I've been there too (resisting a movie simply because of how EVERYONE seems to love it). There still are a few movies that EVERYONE seems to love that I absolutely HATE, but I'd like to think that, nowadays at least, that hatred is earned and not just a byproduct of my irritated overexposure.

  7. Hey, William Weird. I just wanted to say thanks for leaving all the tingly comments throughout my blog thingy.

  8. Out of all the films Cameron Crowe has written, this is probably my least favorite. I still like it though.

  9. There are some scenes in this movie that have a redeeming quality about them:

    Judge Reinhold at the stop - light trying to impress Nancy Wilson (of Heart) while wearing his goofy pirate work uniform...

    EVERY scene featuring Ray Walston and Sean Penn together...

    Jennifer Jason Leigh, making a tight, sleeveless sweatshirt look great with bikini briefs by the poolside... YUMMY!

    Forrest Whitaker, taking his frustrations out on the rival H.S. football team's offense during the homecoming game after seeing his "trophy car" demolished and "vandalized"...

    If these scenes aren't enough to make "Fast Times" worth watching at least twice, then ask yourself one simple question: If you had to choose between adding "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" or "Mad Magazine Presents Up The Academy" to your list of the BEST teen comedies of the 1980s and you only had room for one or the other, which one would you pick?...

    It's just a thought.

  10. I want to french Jennifer Jason Leigh's butt

  11. I came to this review six years too late, but I'll say this...the soundtrack to my 80s high school experience was as much 70s rock as 80s-era pop. A lot of people hated the charts, and everyone seemed to listen to Boston, the Eagles and the reason this flick has always resonated more than the more forced John Hughes stuff.

  12. I've only seen this movie once and forever ago. For some reason it depressed the shit out of me. But I've seen Tsukamoto's "Testuo" more times than I can count. And genuinely laughed out loud at that scene in "Meet Joe Black" when Brad Pitt gets plowed down by a car and flies across the street like a ragdoll.