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Fast Times At Ridgemont High

In the last two editions of Better Late Than Never, Scott beat himself up at length for having never seen Harold And Maude, and Kyle calmly shrugged off having never seen Alien. I fall somewhere between the two of them on the guilt scale over one of the most notable holes in my cinematic vocabulary. Okay, 1982's Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a generational signifier for people of my age. As a superior teen sex comedy, one whose characters actually vaguely resemble teenagers as seen in real life, it stood out amid other films of its type and its era. Its hellish quotability ensures that it still comes up often, more than 25 years after it was made. Thanks to the preponderance of beautiful naked breasts, it seems to have permanently embedded itself in the psyches of nearly all the men my age, who generally encountered it around the time that breasts became a fairly significant obsession.

And yet it's just another teen-sex comedy. How could I feel too guilty for having missed out for so long?

My big fear with Fast Times was that all the people telling me it was a great little film (which is what veterans tend to call it, rather than "a stunning masterpiece") were mostly remembering the boobs, and how they felt about watching the movie as horny teenagers. Sometimes, watching a film at the exact right time in your life makes you love it because it caters to your needs so well that you feel like the filmmakers understand you and those like you in an insightful, personal way. You know, the way I felt about the John Hughes oeuvre when I saw his films as a lonely teenager. Which doesn't necessarily mean they actually hold up today worth a damn.

Fortunately, Fast Times At Ridgemont High operates on more than one level; it wasn't just around to satisfy the reflexive egos (and teen lust) of teenagers circa 1982. On a wandering, satisfyingly personal commentary track that continues a full eight minutes past the end of the movie, director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe seemed to be addressing me personally as they talked about why their film might appeal to people who've actually moved past the awkward-virgin stage of life. As Heckerling points out, the kids in the film think they're adults. They're trying to behave like it, with some limited success. Kids of the same age (in the 14 to 18 range) can watch the film and appreciate characters who are just like them, ready to be grown up, and therefore not acting like the spastic idiots of so many teen comedies. Whereas older viewers can chuckle over those characters, and their sweet but clumsy pretensions to adulthood.

That's a pretty accurate summation of why Fast Times is still a lot of fun, even to someone like me, who doesn't associate Phoebe Cates' bikini-removal scene with her first sexual awakening. But Heckerling leaves out another factor: The huge wave of nostalgia and recognition the film raises for people who were around and aware during the '80s.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a fairly shapeless film. As a young Rolling Stone reporter, Crowe (who went on to write and direct Say Anything…, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, and—ugh—Elizabethtown) went undercover as a high-school student in California, and wrote his book Fast Times At Ridgemont High as reportage on his experiences. (I'm reading the book as soon as I can get my hands on it, possibly for a future edition of Book Vs. Film.) So the film is pretty light on plot; it's mostly a year-in-the-life collection of scenes informed by Crowe's repeat high-school experience. To the degree that there's a story, it's about Jennifer Jason Leigh as a 20-year-old playing a 15-year-old lying to older guys about being a 19-year-old:

Leigh is a virgin, but she wants to drop that label—not with the needy, squeamish franticness of her peers in American Pie or Superbad, but in a fairly practical, goal-focused way. She blushingly practices oral-sex techniques on a carrot with her friend Phoebe Cates in the cafeteria at school (earning applause from a nearby table of guys), and worries about whether she'll be any good in the sack once she gets started. Then she has sex, and decides that it hurts, but things will get better. She has a similarly pained but philosophical reaction when her deflowerer doesn't call her again: She gripes about it, then moves on. The film isn't about great loves and corny romantic wish-fulfillment, it's about early sexual experiences, and how they tend to be awkward and unsatisfying, yet significant. Rather than pining over the guy who got away, she moves on to pursing other dudes, including nerdy nice-guy Brian Backer and his ticket-scalping slickster buddy Robert Romanus. (At least, he appears to be a slickster by high-school standards, which is to say, he's marginally less awkward than everyone else.) And all this happens very early in the film, with minimal muss and fuss.

But Leigh doesn't get much more screen time than the rest of the ensemble cast. Judge Reinhold, as her older brother, anchors a plot about how early jobs suck just as much as early sex. After getting fired from his sweet burger-flipping gig for threatening to kick the ass of an obnoxious customer (swearing and threats of physical violence, the customer tells the manager), he goes through a series of increasingly demoralizing jobs. Meanwhile, Super-Serious Oscar-Winning Method Actor Sean Penn buzzes through the film as its iconic character, surfer-stoner Jeff Spicoli:

On top of that, Forest Whitaker shows up as the school's football star, a grouchy, threatening figure with a sweet car. And Nicolas Cage—under his sole credit as Nicolas Coppola—shows up briefly among the generic faces in the crowd. (The IMDB says he was originally cast in the Judge Reinhold role, but was bumped because he played it too dark; Heckerling, in the commentary, adds that he lied about his age to get into the movie, claiming he was 18 when he was actually 17.) Watching Fast Times today is a lot like flipping through Hollywood's junior-high yearbook, giggling at all the geeky photos showing younger versions of familiar faces like Leigh, Penn, Whitaker, and Cage: Even the adult cast members, including Vincent Schiavelli as the spacey biology teacher and Ray Walston in a great role as a hard-ass history teacher, are fun to watch just because they look so relatively young and fresh.

First-time director Amy Heckerling (who went on to helm Clueless, the new I Could Never Be Your Woman, and—ugh—the first two Look Who's Talking movies) turns the film into a yearbook in other ways, too. It's full of early-'80s signifiers: The video arcades packed with Pac-Man and Galaga stand-ups, the legwarmers the girls are wearing at the senior dance, the David Cassidy feathered hair on most of the guys, the Rubik's Cube Schiavelli plays with in class, as all his students take advantage of his obliviousness by cheating outrageously. The cars, the clothes, the feathered hairclips half the girls are wearing—they all bring up giggle-inducing memories.

And then there's the music, which starts with The Go Go's singing "We Got The Beat" over the title credits, and moves on through The Cars, Oingo Boingo, Don Henley, and a title song by Sammy Hagar.


And yet apart from Spicoli's occasional venture into slang (gnarly, dude!) the film isn't packed with the kind of teen-speak period signifiers that would make it hard to watch without wincing. There's nothing really spectacular about Fast Times as a movie that makes it enduring, but it goes down easy compared to a lot of bygone of-the-moment comedies; apart from the clothes and hair (which today read more as comedy than anything else), it doesn't actually seem too dated. Maybe that's because it addresses its subjects with a broad, universal affection, instead of leaning on a bunch of jokes about events of the time.

(Okay, some datedness does still creep into the movie, particularly in the very early scene where two kids approach Romanus, looking for scalped Van Halen tickets. When they ask for something in the first 10 rows, he says he'll hook them up for $20 apiece. They protest that those tickets should only be $12.50. Ha ha ha! All that's missing is the follow-up scene where they drive to the concert, having gassed up their car for 50 cents a gallon.)

Anyway. What struck me about Fast Times At Ridgemont High is how remarkable it is these days to go back and watch a pre-Adam Sandler, pre-Farrelly brothers, pre-humiliation-comedy teen film. There are embarrassing moments in Fast Times, but they aren't drawn out at length; when Backer goes on a date and realizes in the restaurant that he forgot his wallet, he squirms a lot, but Romanus shows up to rescue him, and he gets away without exposing his error to his date. A car accident (leading to one of the film's classic exchanges, ending with the line "First he's gonna shit, then he's gonna kill us!") seems to put a couple of characters in an ugly situation, but they deal with the problem cleverly and quickly. When Phoebe Cates walks in on Judge Reinhold masturbating in the bathroom, they're both horrified, but the moment passes quickly.

Compare any of this to the grinding series of vicious gags from, say, pretty much any Ben Stiller movie post-Flirting With Disaster, and Fast Times starts looking like a tame jokefest even grandma can enjoy. There's no crotch damage, no humorously dead animals, no pie-fucking, and no menstrual-blood-on-the-pants jokes, either. At its most graphic, it's got a little good-natured pot humor.

'Course, Grandma might be kind of shocked at all the nudity. Leigh gets topless a couple of times when she gets her groove on with her non-groovy lovers, and Cates spends that lovingly shot poolside scene in a hot little red bikini, before peeling her top off in Reinhold's masturbation fantasy. (Keith claims that video-store owners in the '80s were complaining that their tapes of Fast Times would come back with that sequence almost unplayable, because it had been rewound and rewatched so many times that the videotape had been worn down to nothing. Heckerling, meanwhile, says that the film was considered so raunchy at the time that it originally got an X rating, and was considered all but unmarketable until some of Leigh's scenes were cut.)

But one of the many charming things about the film is that these scenes aren't really played for the exploitation factor. Leigh gets naked like it's natural, not naughty; she's clearly focusing on her character, on the moment, and on her sex partners, not on the audience. (She'd get plenty more practice in the years to come.) Cates, meanwhile, is clearly playing to the audience and handing them a big come-on, but it's funny and innocent rather than raunchy. The same could be said of the sex plots in general; considering when the film was made, it's downright charming to see female characters who want sex for its own sake, who aren't using it as a weapon, who aren't ashamed or hesitant or mercenary or portrayed as sluts, and who don't get punished for wanting pleasure. It all feels pretty enlightened. Leigh does briefly deal with the repercussions of unprotected sex, but that subplot is refreshingly brief and undamaging; it's mostly there to show what a selfish twit her last partner was.

In fact, all of Fast Times' twists are pretty benign. Penn feuds with mean ol' Walston, ordering pizza during class, walking in late with a bagel crammed into his pants, and engaging in other minor shenanigans, and Walston keeps trying to take him down a peg. But where most campus comedies would end with a decisive, triumphant victory for one side or the other, with Walston pushed into a pool or otherwise publicly deflated, or with Penn expelled and headed on to a crappy life, but maybe still getting laid in order to end the movie on an upbeat note, Fast Times eventually shows that they're both fairly reasonable people whose goals just don't happen to coincide. Neither one's a villain—the film entirely lacks any such thing. It's just pure, lighthearted, relatively respectful fun. With boobs.

So what next? Maybe having enjoyed this particular bit of '80s sextalgia, I should move on to the other "classic" sex comedies I haven't seen, like Porky's and Meatballs. Though honestly, watching Mr. Method play a slovenly cutup mostly made me want to revisit the Bill And Ted movies, and remember when Keanu Reeves was briefly a comedic actor too. Those were the days.