Movies » Movie Review

Emma Goes to the Mall




*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Amy Heckerling

With Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Dan Hedaya, Justin Walker, and Breckin Meyer.

It seems unlikely that Jane Austen would have enjoyed the MTV beach-party premiere of Clueless, Amy Heckerling's savvy new film version of Austen's novel Emma. Even when she was alive, Jane never had much use for watering places--in 1801 her father's ill health forced her to move to Bath, and she left there in 1806 with "happy feelings of escape." But no doubt she would have understood perfectly the impetus behind the whole affair. The woman who wrote Sense and Sensibility, who described Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars as "neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life," would certainly understand the need for a sensible approach to marketing, the need to reel in the lucrative teen market by trotting out Coolio, Luscious Jackson, and Arrowsmith video vixen Alicia Silverstone.

Though most of the population thinks of Austen novels as relics of a bygone era in which stiff people wore funny clothes, hung out in drawing rooms playing cribbage, and celebrated things like Michaelmas, there are very few aspects of modern life that Jane Austen wouldn't understand. Marketing, health food, date rape, E-mail--none of them would faze her. Neither would the swooning miniskirted ladies of Melrose Place--or even the movie by the photographer dude that supposedly documents in horrifying detail the decadence of late-20th-century teenagers. A tale about a bored, amoral rake who seduces virgins to satisfy his own vanity? Jane would take one look at Kids and say, "Been there, done that. Over it."

Sure, we talk and dress a lot differently than people did in Austen's day; we have fancy new forms of communication and transportation, even new diseases. But we still get married, and despite feminism and the pill and those never-ending debates about who pays, courtship hasn't really changed much in the past 200 years: women today obsess on exactly the same romantic dilemmas that plague Jane Austen's heroines. How much encouragement should you give a boy who may like you? (Too much and the entire world will know you like him, too little and he'll think you have no use for him.) How can you tell the difference between a cad and--to borrow an expression from Liz Phair--"the kind of guy who makes love 'cause he's in it"? (A hint: Don't rely on either his looks or his manners.) How can you save face when you overhear some guy dissing you at a party? (Tell the story with great spirit among your friends.) If your prospects look dim, at what age do you give up and settle for someone you don't really love? (Not a minute before 27.) What do you say to a man who thinks you mean yes when you've just told him no? (One suggestion: "I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed.")

One wouldn't expect the director whose film debut put the phrase "Hey, bud, let's party" into the lexicon to adapt a Jane Austen novel 13 years later. But Heckerling, who since the 1982 Fast Times at Ridgemont High has also directed Look Who's Talking and Look Who's Talking Too, has devoted her career to comedy, Austen's specialty. "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life," Jane Austen wrote in an 1816 letter. "And if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."

Heckerling clearly feels equally confined by seriousness. At the MTV Clueless beach-party premiere, when Daisy Fuentes--no doubt inspired by the Paramount PR that describes Clueless as an "update on teenage chaos...focusing on teenage girls who are worldly, rich and hyper-hormonal"--asked her how her current film differed from Fast Times, Heckerling just couldn't bring herself to take the question seriously. She said that since more than ten years had elapsed, she'd just gone ahead and made the same movie over again. Her joke was clearly lost on Fuentes; the exchange was uncannily like one of those classic moments in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Bennet is making fun of Mrs. Bennet and she hasn't a clue she's the butt of the joke.

Except for Bruce Diones's capsule in the New Yorker, which calls Heckerling's idea for updating Emma "inspired," reviews of Clueless have either ignored the Emma connection or joked about it. The person who maintains the Jane Austen Web site seems to be one of the few people on the planet who takes the connection seriously. He or she has put up a list of some of the movie's parallels to Emma, a cast list that identifies who's who in terms of the novel, and a note advising, "I notice that people who have read Emma tend to get more enjoyment out of the movie than those who approach it as merely yet another teen flick."

The plot of Emma--spoiled socialite spends a lot of time meddling in other people's lives until she's put straight by the love of a good man--is so shopworn that even people who haven't read the book know almost immediately who Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) will end up with at the end of Clueless. If you haven't read the book, it's perhaps a little harder to anticipate the countless mistakes Cher will make before she reaches the bottom of her "shame spiral" and decides to make over her soul. If you have, you'll recognize scenes that have been lifted straight from the book: Mr. Elton makes violent love to Emma in a carriage (a car in Clueless); Frank Churchill saves Harriet Smith from being attacked by Gypsies (Heckerling makes them mallrats); Harriet saves a piece of "court plaister" to remind her of Mr. Elton (it's a towel in Clueless); Emma catches sight of Mr. Knightley "leading Harriet to the set" at a ball (dancing at a party).

Heckerling hasn't just co-opted Emma's complex plot, she's retained most of the novel's characters almost exactly as Austen drew them. Cher is just as handsome, just as clever, and just as rich as Emma Woodhouse, and like her she tends to see other people as projects rather than human beings. Emma thinks taking on Harriet Smith ("the natural daughter of somebody") as her protege will be an "interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life." Cher thinks introducing Tai (Brittany Murphy), an adorably clueless new girl, to cropped tops qualifies as "using your popularity for a good cause." Emma tells Harriet that she will not be able to call on her if she marries Robert Martin, who rents a large farm, and when Tai falls for a skateboarding pothead named Travis Birkenstock (Breckin Meyer), Cher is equally blunt in her snobbishness: "The loadies hang out on the grassy knoll at school, but no respectable girl actually dates them." Emma has sworn not to marry except on the off chance that she should fall in love: "Without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine." Cher has sworn not to have sex without love: "You see how picky I am about shoes, and they only go on my feet."

A mysterious outsider changes this resolution for both girls. In Emma the stranger is Frank Churchill, Emma's one-time love interest who turns out to be secretly engaged to Emma's foil, Jane Fairfax. Although one girl at school seems to annoy Cher the way Jane does Emma, Jane has no real counterpart in Clueless because the movie's Frank Churchill (Justin Walker) is a "Streisand-ticket-holding, Oscar Wilde-reading friend of Dorothy." There doesn't seem to be a basis in the text for making Frank Churchill gay---though I'm sure countless graduate students have worked hard to support this reading--but it feels right. There is something of the fag hag in the way Emma enjoys being the alpha female of Highbury.

The straight boy who convinces Cher to give up Contempo Casuals and act in a socially responsible fashion--to forgo MTV's The Real World and start watching CNN--is her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), who has many of the qualities of Emma's patient suitor. Critic Ronald Blythe has called Mr. Knightley "the timeless Englishman, the real thing, modest, unaffected, somewhat inadequate of speech...just, intelligent but not intellectual, loving rather than lover-like." Though Josh isn't the timeless Englishman, he is the timeless Josh: a sweet, well-groomed "school nerd." We can tell right away he's a stand-up dude because he wears an Amnesty International T-shirt, listens to mope rock, and wants to be an environmental lawyer.

Only one character seems wrong: Cher's father (Dan Hedaya) is a ruthless corporate litigator with a high cholesterol count. In the novel Mr. Woodhouse is a mild-mannered health nut who champions the benefits of thin gruel to anyone within earshot. A true late-20th-century Mr. Woodhouse would be more like someone who'd stepped out of Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills or Steve Martin's L.A. Story and less like Tony Danza's character from Who's the Boss?

But overall Heckerling has perfectly captured the essence of Austen's comedy. Even her title, which looks like a casual bit of teenage slang, brilliantly distills what Jane Austen novels are all about. As Marilyn Butler notes in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, the heroines of her six novels fall nicely into two groups: those who are right and those who are wrong. Emma Woodhouse, "handsome, clever, and rich," is famously among the wrong, so much so that Jane Austen once feared that she'd created a heroine "no one but myself would like." In the novels where the heroine is wrong (Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Pride and Prejudice), the marriage plot cannot proceed until she comes to terms with her cluelessness. As Elizabeth Bennet famously puts it when she finally realizes that Wickham is the bad guy, not Mr. Darcy: "I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away....Till this moment, I never knew myself." In the novels where the heroine is right (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion) the action depends on other characters realizing how deluded they've been and coming around to the heroine's way of thinking. So, in short, Jane Austen novels are a festival of cluelessness.

Since large sections of the clue-impaired population are under 18, Heckerling has wisely chosen to set her Emma update in a high school--Beverly Hills High according to the PR, though I swear Cher refers to it in one scene as Bronson Alcott High (Bronson Alcott was a transcendentalist philosopher and Louisa May Alcott's father). A high school is also perfect because, like "three or four families in a country village," it's an isolated microcosm of society in which everyone gets involved in everybody else's business.

Like Jane Austen characters, high school students talk a lot and distinguish themselves primarily by how they use language. Of course Heckerling's language--she wrote as well as directed Clueless--is different from Austen's, but the sentiments are often so much the same that one suspects she went through the novel with a fine-tooth comb. In Emma Mr. Knightley, who himself speaks in "plain, unaffected, gentleman-like English," says of Frank Churchill, "If I find him conversible, I shall be glad of his acquaintance; but if he is only a chattering coxcomb, he will not occupy much of my time or thoughts." In Clueless one of the first things Tai, the Harriet Smith-like character Cher adopts, notices about her new schoolmates is the way they talk--she's impressed when a boy who usually talks like a homey launches into an erudite explanation of how street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression--and some of the movie's most engaging scenes take place during Cher's debate class.

Though Cher obviously doesn't spend much time researching her debates (she refers to the inhabitants of Haiti as "Hate-ians"), she obviously has no fear of public speaking and loves to talk--yet another thing she has in common with Emma, who talks more than any other character in all of Jane Austen: according to one study, Emma speaks 42,800 words, more than twice as many as her closest competitor, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Only Silverstone's agent knows how many lines she has in Clueless, but she's in just about every scene and has a significant number of voice-overs. The other characters do a great job of swirling about Cher, but Clueless rests mainly on Silverstone's shoulders: Heckerling's snappy lines would fall flat without this actress's priceless facial expressions and intonations.

When Martin Scorsese's punctilious adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out, Edith Wharton's stock went up so much that somebody cleaned off her grave in Paris. Clueless, with its peppy sound track featuring the Muffs, Jill Sobule, World Party, Radiohead, and Counting Crows, isn't likely to do as much for Austen's reputation. In fact, it probably isn't going to sell a single copy of Emma--though Emma Thompson's forthcoming adaptation of Sense and Sensibility will surely send Austen novels flying off the shelves. Its costumes, drawing rooms, and proper diction will undoubtedly cause Austen admirers to rave about how close it is to the original. And the rest of the population will go on thinking--like one of the mildly deluded characters in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan--that "nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous from today's perspective."

But Amy Heckerling and Jane Austen will have the last laugh. As Martin Amis wrote in a 1990 essay on Pride and Prejudice, "One may wonder what she [Austen] has to say to the current crop of twenty-year-olds, for whom 'love' is not quite what it was. Today love faces new struggles, against literalism, futurelessness, practicality, wised-updom, and nationwide condom campaigns. But maybe the old opposition, of passion and prudence, never really changes; it just sways on its axis."

Add a comment