Rewatching this after who knows how many years made me think about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of a five star rating system, such as are used widely online—on Amazon, for instance, or Letterboxd. A friend has a very specific meaning, a pretty rigorous approach, to how he uses the Letterboxd rating scale.
He allots a star for each of the following:
craft (cinematography, direction, design, etc.)
did it move me
A movie can score 0, .5 or 1 star for each category.
Me, it's more about pleasure, which is another way of saying I go with my gut. I don't hand out a lot of fifth stars but 3 1/2 stars is a very common way for me to acknowledge a mainstream film that is quite successful on its own terms.
Actually, if I use his system, I would still give Clueless 3.5 stars. But I also think that it's a movie that points out the weaknesses of the system. It's not a movie that has glorious craft (although the costuming is pretty delightful)—except inasmuch as direction helps actors deliver better performances—but it's highly competent and professional.
The performances are not uniformly great, but there's a LOT to love about a lot of them. Alicia Silverstone is darling, but Brittany Murphy, in particular, is sometimes superbly good, really kind of sneaking up on you—and there's a lot of solid supporting work, from Wallace Shawn to Dan Hedaya to Paul Rudd.
The script is very strong and sly. The film is set in the world of the teen comedy, but it is actually a comedy of manners, like its source material. This is an important point because it makes all the difference between something that could feel like a rehashing of tired movie tropes and what is a surprisingly fresh twist on a classic. Rather than date the film, which is now 20 years old, the celebrated teen argot makes it seem current, in the sense that high school slang is just as impenetrable to outsiders now as ever, and underscores the story's class concerns.
Clueless doesn't move me overmuch, apart from its being cute, and, of course, I always find pleasure in a movie that works so well. The romance—getting the guy—I actually find the least satisfying aspect of it. It feels tacked on (though required) and kind of troubling—I know Cher and Josh are not actually related, but surely their romance would be weird to everyone in their family, wouldn't it? I'd like to overlook that, because they are adorable, but I just can't.
There is a voice here—it's not exactly a personal voice, but a thoughtful, witty and benevolent voice. (It seems unlikely that there would be a special group of Amy Heckerling fans, though surely she has and deserves admirers. She is a unicorn: a successful female Hollywood director. Go ahead: name five more, if you can.)
These elements, adding up as they do to a solid Hollywood classic—and certainly a teen favorite (it still is), and a favorite of high school english teachers, too—don't a masterpiece make. But here's the thing—here's where our star system fails us. Because there is so much more of interest in Clueless than can be encompassed in this way, so much more to talk about.
From class to race, to consumerism, to a depiction of a cultural moment, to a brilliant, striking linkage to a culture two centuries removed, that of the world Jane Austen depicts in Emma (the Clueless source material, of course), to an image of "the kids in America" at the pre-dawn of the Internet Age, and Los Angeles culture, and as a case study of women's paths in Hollywood, and as a critique of the "teen comedy" film, and, of course, as a remarkably teachable text, there are many, many uses of Clueless.
So what I am wondering now is how do we talk about the way we value such works? My appreciation of the film is part nostalgia; I can easily imagine a thoroughly disinterested, even disgusted, response—surely a number of my film school friends would simply claim to hate Clueless, and I'm sure many academics would find it incomprehensible and cringeworthy. Some, not all.
But my point is that, for such a useful (and, frankly, pleasurable) text, three and a half stars does not seem reasonable—yet more stars somehow seems inaccurate.
So what do we call the kind of valuing I'm talking about? What do we talk about when we talk about Clueless?