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

About 30 minutes into Clueless, an utterly disposable new teen comedy starring MTV-spawned glamour gal Alicia Silverstone as a spoiled Beverly Hills princess, I started to picture myself as the protagonist of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. I'm playing a hardbitten journalistic loner, a cross between Mad Max and Andrew Sarris--the last surviving alternative press film critic.

I'm brought into a dimly lit, black granite courtroom of Riefenstahlian proportions. Leg chains rattling, I am forced to kneel before a tribunal of pop-culture-conscious android judges. The charge: treason against rationality.

"Exhibit A, your honor," barks the prosecution's lawyer, a seven-foot monstrosity in a leather jumpsuit, an ankle-length cape, and a helmet that looks like a cappucino machine. "He freely admits to enjoying Clueless!"

Well, what can I say? I'm guilty, Your Terminatorships. Tear up my Pseudointellectual Film Critics' Society membership card and toss my sorry carcass into the atom smasher.

I'm not alone, thank goodness. The rest of the country also seems to be in love with Alicia Silverstone, a 16-year-old model-turned-movie-icon, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with creative merit. Recently, during a week when the brilliant documentary Crumb finally went into wide release, she adorned the cover of Entertainment Weekly--which, considering that Crumb is a repugnant and fascinating genius and Silverstone's track record includes two forgettable horror pictures and a raft of Aerosmith videos, is reason to despise her on general principle. There's another: Clueless, her first star vehicle, raked in nearly $3 million on its first day, instantly transforming a peroxide blond who's barely old enough to drive into one of the most sought-after female stars in the movie business.

But hell--if I said I didn't understand her popularity, I'd be lying. Silverstone is our guilty pleasure of the moment. She's an adorable little jailbait pixie--Drew Barrymore without the tragic undertones. Bopping around Los Angeles in a succession of sleek, colorful, astonishingly expensive outfits, and dealing with seemingly insoluble crises that involve dating, shopping, and report cards, she carries herself like a pint-sized Cybill Shepherd during her early-'70s Breck Girl phase--a young, vacuous, golden-skinned goddess who's forgone carrying the world on her shoulders in favor of wearing it on her back.

Curvy hips swinging, flaxen hair flying, she tosses boys flirty looks that say, "I might act poised and worldly, but I'm actually saving myself for that special someone--who very well might be you, big fella." She looks like she was created on a software program titled, "Heterosexual Teenaged Boy Fantasy Fun Kit." If he could see the way Silverstone grins when she wriggles across a dance floor in a slinky red dress in Clueless, even Pope John Paul II might start drooling like Humbert Humbert.

Ultimately, though, what makes Clueless so beguiling is that its writer-director, Amy Heckerling, doesn't turn Silverstone's character, a Jewish American Princess improbably named Cher, into just another object for male viewers to pant over. She doesn't condescend to this poor little rich girl--and considering that Cher presents such an easy target, that's an achievement bordering on heroism. She places us right inside Cher's defiantly trivial consciousness, so that we see the world through her ditzy, sweet-natured eyes--glittery orbs that, to her pals and assorted suitors, always seem to flash either dollar signs, smiley faces, or little cartoon hearts.

If Clueless makes Silverstone a bona fide star, as opposed to a flavor of the month, she'll have Heckerling to thank. The filmmaker has taken a pubescent clotheshorse, molded her tics into something resembling a comic style, and created an assured young comic actress who's ready-made to star in teen-targeted "date" pictures: straight men want to date her, and everybody else wants to be her best pal--or, at the very least, to spend an afternoon at the mall with her while pushing their MasterCards to the outer limits.

Which would be fine with Cher. She's the only daughter of a feared Los Angeles litigator (Dan Hedaya, looking like his neck veins are about to explode at any moment) whose wife died when Cher was very young. Our heroine is obsessed with surfaces and oblivious to anything deeper. She has an expensive car she hasn't learned to park, and she's always getting in trouble with traffic cops for assorted violations. "Next time you drive, do it with an adult, not one of your friends," Dad warns. "Two learner's permits do not equal a license."

Cher spends a lot more time thinking about popularity, clothes, aerobic workouts, and parties than schoolwork or the future. Every morning, she picks what outfits she'll wear on a custom-made, wardrobe-planning computer program. When that doesn't completely satisfy her, she has her best pal Dionne (Stacey Dash) take Polaroids of her. ("I don't rely on mirrors," Cher explains.)

She's decided she's perfectly happy being who she is. As a result, she has plenty of time and energy to devote to matchmaking. Clueless takes a leaf or two from Jane Austen's novel Emma, which also concerned a young woman so fond of getting her acquaintances together that she was too busy to listen to her own heart. ("God, this woman is screaming for a makeover!" Cher declares of a dowdy female teacher she's decided to assist in finding love.)

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.

Her personality is an odd combination of confidence and gentility, brazenness and tact. For such a millennial girl, she's surprisingly 19th century. When, following an attempted pawing by a horny date, Cher hops out of his car in a parking lot, Silverstone does something that instantly wins you over: she stalks away from the car and yelps, "Ooo!" All of a sudden, you can almost picture her in petticoats and toting a parasol. If Jane Austen could see Clueless, she'd probably think it was way cool.

Clueless. Paramount. Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Dan Hedaya. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling. Now showing.

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