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Trivial and proud of it, Clueless is an improbably entertaining time-waster

Of course, you just know that sooner or later she'll figure out there's one guy who's perfect for her--and that she'll fall for him for reasons that have nothing to do with the pursuit of popularity. Filmmaker Heckerling has updated Emma's numerous matches and mismatches so that, rather than travel to one another's country homes, Cher's potential mates run into each other at parties and shopping malls or talk to each other via cellular phone. Our heroine hovers over every not-so-chance meeting, taking notes, dispensing fashion tips, and planting seeds of romance, all the while ignoring the murmurs of her heart.

Heckerling, who directed the 1981 hit teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has the eye of a satirist but the soul of a guidance counselor. She tends to pick projects best painted with a broad, somewhat cruel satirical brush. Then, once she gets to know her territory and the people who populate it, she becomes a convert to their lifestyle, even a cheerleader urging them on to short-term happiness.

She has a knack for capturing the body language, mating rituals, and vocal rhythms of these well-off teens, whose talk traffics in some of the most hilariously ornate phrases this side of Heathers. "I could feel the chunks rising in my throat," Cher confides during a crisis. She dismisses the melancholy, acoustic, public radio-friendly songs Josh listens to as "complaint rock." Making up with a gal pal after an argument, she admits, "I've been going down a shame spiral!" And though she's so scholastically deficient that she doesn't know where Kuwait is, she's learned to speak the florid phrasing of Beverly Hills teens, and she passes it on to proteges like a pint-sized Henry Higgins. "I tried to tell [my teacher] of my academic aspirations," she says, after getting a report card full of poor grades, "but I was brutally rebuffed."

I wouldn't call Clueless a deep movie, or even an especially memorable one. Like bubblegum, it's fun to chew on for a while, but after you've parted ways with it, the taste eventually vanishes. But for what it is, it's surprisingly good. When it's firing on all cylinders, it proves there's a difference between good fluff and bad. Bad fluff makes you feel guilty for watching. Good fluff involves you on some level so that you have a real emotional stake in what happens, no matter how ridiculous or implausible it might seem.

Clueless falls into the latter category. It's like Pillow Talk or Breakfast at Tiffany's or Miami Rhapsody--a well-acted, well-constructed, surprisingly endearing time waster. The picture starts out as a cutesy (and rather annoying) satire on being young, rich, and popular in America--a dumbed-down, defanged version of Heathers. Then it subtly metamorphoses into a romantic comedy that has sympathy for its screwed-up denizens.

After Fast Times--a movie set in the suburban San Fernando Valley and populated with characters of mostly blue-collar to upper-middle-class origins, who did tons of drugs, had explicit discussions about oral sex, and worked at burger joints--I wouldn't have expected Heckerling to find anything to like about this glitzy, pampered bunch. But somehow, she does. Like Cher, filmmaker Heckerling is slick on top and mild at heart; she fancies herself above it all, but inside she's a softie who just can't help falling in love. The people in Clueless start out with one dimension and end up with at least two.

We meet some very endearing characters, including Cher's befuddled favorite teacher (Wallace Shawn, of course); her almost-but-not-quite-stepbrother (Paul Rudd); and a hapless new girl from New York (Brittany Murphy) who doesn't understand that girls who want to be popular don't date the flannel-wearing, longhaired stoners who hang out on a patch of grass near the school's front entrance that's nicknamed "The Grassy Knoll."

One of my favorite characters is Christian (Justin Walker), a well-groomed dreamboat in the "Beverly Hills 90210" mode. Our heroine takes an instant fancy to him. Her dad disapproves of the boy's circa-1955 delinquent poet look and his fondness for equally outdated hepcat lingo--"You think when Sammy Davis Jr. died a spot opened up in the rat pack and you're gonna fill it?" he demands. But Cher, who thinks he's way fine, sets about manuevering him into her bed.

The only problem: he's gay. (Or, as one of Cher's friends puts it, "a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holding friend of Dorothy!") Refreshingly, though most movies might have written him off after this, Clueless keeps the character around, letting him bond with Cher, join in her schemes, and even become a momentary hero during a scuffle at a mall. Like nearly everyone else in the picture, he has something to contribute. Heckerling appreciates him, and so does Cher.

Ultimately, it's Cher's newfound ability to appreciate what's inside her friends that makes Clueless so sweet. And it's Silverstone who makes the character so improbably credible. I think what audiences like most about her, besides her conventional good looks, is her utter guilelessness--and her complete emotional transparency. She has a hilariously open face; she couldn't hide her true feelings on a subject even if she wanted to, and heaven knows she doesn't.

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