THOUGH THERE ARE MORE COMING-of-age movies that feature an out-of-control house party (that eventually has to frantically be cleaned up before the frazzled host’s parents come back home from whatever trip or ritzy dinner party to which they’re devoting their time) than I can count on my two hands, I’ll never stop sympathizing with a harried protagonist until my young years are over and I’ve become one of the stereotypical parents myself. Because the fantasy of doing bad and getting away with it is a delicious prospect, even if the person thinking up the fantasy (such as myself) is too blah to actually go through with the deed. In the confines of a world that mostly circles around trying to get into a good college by the end of the school year, trying to somehow get laid, and/or trying to impermanently get a taste of adulthood, there’s something alluring about the potentiality of going against the grain of expectation for a few hours without penalty.
Risky Business (1983), certainly one of the best movies about teenagers ever made, is a film that consists only of the doing bad and the getting away with it abstraction. By its end, its hero (played by a winsome Tom Cruise in his first major leading role) has sunk his father’s $40,000 Porsche into the depths of Lake Michigan, gotten stoned, lost his virginity to a call girl (a terrific Rebecca De Mornay), destroyed his GPA after missing a couple of midterms, gotten suspended for a week, thrown a legendary party for all his classmates, and has effectively turned his house into a brothel for a night. And yet he still gets into Princeton, maintains his affable boy next door reputation, and remains a trustworthy child in the eyes of his clueless parents.
Risky Business is all adolescent conceit, sure, but that’s what makes it so much fun — it’s an accumulation of a teenage boy’s wildest dreams, and is delivered snappily and self-assuredly. Written and directed by Paul Brickman, and produced on a respectable budget of about $6 million, it’s objective and it’s conversationally accurate — gifted with an ear John Hughes would kill for and a pen that drips with comedic inspiration, not a moment rings false, which is impressive (considering that the entire film is inarguably implausible).
Its teenagers are not beefcakes nor bombshells in their twenties but teenagers (still played by people in their twenties), teenagers riddled with bad hairdos, dashes of acne, clothes that emphasize their wanting to look older, and body language that tries to suggest that they’ve seen it all and know it all but are, in fact, terrified of what the future might hold. Cruise’s Joel is an embodiment of these insecurities — he has plenty of things going for him, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting to temporarily escape his predictable, pressured existence.
In Risky Business, his golden opportunity for, ahem, risky business, comes in the form of his parents’ (Nicholas Pryor and Janet Carroll) going away for a week on a romantic vacation. He’d be more disposed to absorbing the pleasant uneventfulness if his friends didn’t make the idea of in-house rebellion sound so glamorous. His first night is decidedly unexciting; he has a frozen meal for dinner (that he doesn’t realize has to be heat up), takes advantage of the home’s liquor cabinet, and memorably dances to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in a pink nightshirt Olivia Newton-John might have worn before she went bad in Grease.
But his short-lived freedom only gives him more incentive to push the envelope as far as he can. Before long, people are coming over as a hookup hot spot, and, most daringly, Joel calls over De Mornay’s prostitute Lana (whom he finds in a newspaper ad) for a night of passion (that develops into something more). But when his bravery jumps to a point in which the aforementioned undertakings almost seem inevitable, then things really start flaring up, testing Joel’s stature all the while exemplifying his prospective future as an entrepreneur.
Never tested, though, is Cruise’s unflagging star power. As we’ve grown accustomed to his unpredictable (and sometimes head-scratching) star persona throughout his thirty-five years of notoriety, Risky Business, which complements his special sort of talent adeptly, is a movie as charismatic as the modern day cinematic icon it made. Cruise is immaculately cast as Joel; while he seems as naive and centrally innocent as any high school senior, the second he flashes that Tom Cruise smile, ear to ear and disarmingly all-American, an inexperienced penchant makes way for a scheming, almost adult aura. Joel’s as likable as he is unmistakably flawed — he’s a movie teenager that has the thoughts and feelings of an actual teenager — and Cruise, so ragtag appealing and so interestingly smarmy, brings pathos to an already exceptional role. (And his widely imitated dancing to Bob Segar’s 1979 single is really something else.)
But most thrilling about Risky Business is that it doesn’t bear the lightweight, materialistic charms of a teen movie going through the motions. Here is a sex comedy that portrays sex as something vulnerable instead of untouchably scary, that finds its comedy in humorous misfortune, discovery, and interaction, never to imitate laborious situational comedy heat. It’s a coming-of-age story that juxtaposes heavenly fantasy and frightening reality and ends up with something touching and smart; it’s among the greatest of its kind. A