What a weird, extraordinary, unpleasant, amazing, baffling film Risky Business is. Unlike Back to the Future, say, or The Breakfast Club, Risky Business is an 80s teen movie that most people today know about, maybe even occasionally reference, but few actually watch out of fond sentiment. And when I went to see it last weekend at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, watching it for the first time in over 20 years, I soon learned why.
I’d managed to remember Risky Business as a charming story of a sweet suburban teenager who is home alone for the week. For some reason or another, a sexy call girl moves in and hilarious chaos ensues, including Cruise at one point dancing round in his pants. It was, in my memory, an adorable mash-up of Weird Science, Home Alone and Ferris Bueller, with the added bonus of 80s Tom Cruise which is, clearly, the finest Tom Cruise.
It turned out this is not what Risky Business is like at all. It is possibly one of the most 80s films I’ve ever seen, which is really saying something, but in this instance I do not mean that in a good way. I mean it in a very bad way. Risky Business has all the ingredients of a classic 80s film – teenagers, Illinois suburbs, absent parents, synth soundtrack, random dance scene – but topped with the uglier Reaganite mentalities of the decade. These are then coupled with my absolute least favourite film trope as well as frankly baffling direction and writing from Paul Brickman.
But before we get into the critique, here’s the plot for anyone who has a similarly patchy memory of what actually happens in Risky Business: Joel (a fresh faced Cruise) is, like his friends, a wealthy teenager whose focus is entirely on getting into an ivy league college in order to earn, as he and his friends say repeatedly, “lots of money.” He is a good son, sweet and innocent, albeit a sweet innocent who employs a prostitute, Lana (Rebecca de Mornay), to divest him of his virginity as soon as his parents go away for a week. Joel and Lana have athletic and deeply satisfying sex all over his parents’ house, because that’s how everyone’s first time is, of course. Yet Joel remains fretful, full of anxiety about getting into Princeton and concern that maybe having a thieving prostitute living in his parents’ house for the week isn’t the best of ideas. Until, that is, he finds an apparently magical pair of Wayfarer sunglasses. When Joel puts on these Wayfarers he experiences a change even more extraordinary than Clark Kent’s morphing into Superman because Joel’s sunglasses evoke in him an entire personality overhaul. This shy teenager suddenly becomes Mr Cool, Mr Pimp (the two are synonymous, of course), and he and Lana set up a brothel in his parents’ house in order to pay off the damage he did to his father’s Porsche (the number of time the car’s brand is mentioned far outweighs any mentions of the words “prostitute” or “hooker”, as those are obviously far less glamorous and serve as an unpleasant reminder of what actually underpins Joel’s business plan and musical montage love life.) She brings in her friends, he brings in his, ba da bing, ba da boom, and the money comes rolling in. Joel gets accepted to Princeton because the Dean of Admissions so enjoys the use of Joel’s cadre of hookers that he decides “Princeton needs men like Joel.” The end.
OK. Let’s first look on the bright sides. Well, props to Brickman for making his teenagers, not the usual bullied misfits who generally make up the teens in 80s films, but nasty, spoilt rich brats. Joel and his friends are like the bullies who teen protagonists in other teen movies (Pretty in Pink, Edward Scissorhands in the 90s) are forced to endure and eventually overcome. Few can rival my love of John Hughes’ movies, but I do take David Thompson’s point that the teenagers in his films can be too “piously problem-solving” and Hughes fails to “portray the boredom of many teenage lives.” Brickman has, intentionally or not, completely rejected that trope so while not even Bronson Pinchot can make these friends appealing, at least the film at least has originality going for it.
But the movie’s only true merit is Cruise. Cruise, especially 80s Cruise, is deeply underrated and it’s a damn shame that in this century he has apparently decided to give up acting – perhaps after deciding he will never get an Oscar after repeated unfair snubs – and now churns out lucrative, identikit action movies (the Mission: Impossible behemoth, Jack Reacher, Knight and Day), interspersed with occasional bursts of ultimately rather depressing self-mockery (Tropic Thunder, Rock of Ages, Austin Powers in Goldmember.)
Nineties Cruise was OK, but – with the exception of Magnolia – fairly bland, occasionally embarrassing and sometimes miscast. But you do have to respect a man who plays a character called “Cole Trickle.”
Eighties Cruise, on the other hand, was one of the most enjoyable actors around. Cruise, not Dustin Hoffman, should have won the Oscar for Rain Man because Cruise’s role was thankless and in anyone else’s hands would have been utterly forgettable. But Cruise subtly made it the heart of an otherwise slushy piece of dross. His range was, and still is when he can be bothered, fantastic, and I can’t think of any other actor could so completely own a classic piece of Bruckheimer & Simpson like Top Gun and then, just three years later, play a near unrecognisable paraplegic. When I’m watching a Cruise film, I don’t care about the Scientology and general wackiness. The man can act and when he is onscreen, in a role he enjoys, I can’t look at anything else.
Ricky Business was Cruise’s fifth role and he grabs onto it, clearly knowing that this is his big break. He is adorably sweet as the nervous young 18 year old and while not even Cruise can explain Joel’s baffling personality change midway through the film, he at least has a lot of fun with it and is just as credible as the obnoxious pimp as he is as the stressed out teenager.
So that’s what’s good about Risky Business. Now let’s talk about what’s not. Can we talk about prostitutes in movies, please?
I can only assume that most other people have, like me, forgotten what Risky Business is actually about, otherwise it would come up in more discussions about the wrongness of, say, Pretty Woman or any Woody Allen film featuring The Tart With The Heart. As film tropes go, the only one that is maybe as irritating as The Plucky Prostitute is “mental illness as a sign of childlike wisdom, mental torment and/or sexy spontaneity.” Contrary to what the directors screenwriters and directors of Plucky Prostitute films seem to think, prostitutes are not sexy women who have found a sexy way to monetise their overwhelming sexiness by having sexy sex all day, interspersed with sexy chat that mixes sexy naivete and sexy smarts. They are not women waiting to be saved by male protagonists and happen to bring sexy sex skills to boot. Prostitutes might have lots of sex but there is nothing sexy about that and any filmmaker who doesn’t understand that has the mental age of a 14 year old and should be viewed accordingly
De Mornay does her best with Lana in this film but not only is her part embarrassingly clichéd (she’s smart! She’s sassy! She’s a little bit tragic! But not so much that you can’t have sex with her! Yay! Honestly, De Mornay’s role as the killer nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was more rounded), but the script itself celebrates prostitution. In one scene Joel and Lana go shopping for mattresses in order to equip their brothel (always a charming outing) and he talks in an admiring voice over about how Lana is the purest form of capitalism, what with being a hooker and all. The film appears to be trying to make some parallel between Lana’s money obsession and that of the wealthy suburbanites, and many critics at the time bought that. Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times that Risky Business is a good satire about “guilt, greed, lust and secrecy. This movie knows what goes on behind the closed bathroom doors of the American dream.” But with all due respect to Ebert, who I revere, this is nonsense. Lana is too central a character in this film, and the work of her and her friends is too much a part of this film to be dismissed as mere symbolism. The shopping for mattresses, the big party Joel throws for all of his friends to come and use the prostitutes (who appear to be having a GREAT time), the shots of his friends all talking about the prostitutes: the film seems to want to play all this for entertainment but you don’t have to be Andrea Dworkin to find the whole basis of the film repellent.
Also I’m not entirely sure what Ebert means by paralleling prostitution with the American dream. Brickman himself makes this point with the subtlety of a dump truck when in the scene in which Joel and Lana first have sex, a TV is on in the background filled with the image of a waving American flag. But we never actually learn what the parents any of these kids do – all we see is the kids talking about their desire for money. So unless Ebert is suggesting sophomoric venality is tantamount to being a hooker, or if Brickman is saying that fucking a hooker is the American dream, this point is passing me by.
Aside from proving one’s immaturity, the inclusion of the Plucky Prostitute presents another problem for the industrious filmmaker: tone. Garry Marshall wisely realised that he’d have to re-write the original script for Pretty Woman, changing it from being the dark, serious story it once was and souping it up into a romantic comedy in the hope that audiences would be too busy chortling to realise they were watching a movie about a rich schmuck who picks up a hooker in Hollywood. Woody Allen attempts to paper over the awkward “prostitute element” in his various movies with a slapstick tone. Brickman, however, seems determined to make some kind of dark, moody film, even if his plot is like something out of a lazy sitcom. The result is a movie the constantly seems on the verge of laughs (such as when one prostitute turns up who is actually a transvestite), but then insists it is making some unspecified serious point.
It’s hard to say what mystifies me most about this film: that it got such good reviews when it was released, that it’s remembered today in an apparently positive light, or that it was greenlit at all. Yes, the 80s were a long time ago but they weren’t in another Ice Age, one in which teenage boys shagging prostitutes was considered classic material. It is a testament to Cruise that this film is remembered at all. Anyone who goes to see it today will probably wish, however, that it wasn’t.
Next week: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off