Retro-View: Risky Business (1983)

Since I feel like I’m trapped in the blog version of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, I might as well press on into the burgeoning neon soul of the 1980’s. I clearly recall the night I saw RISKY BUSINESS at Birdcage Walk Theaters in the heart of suburban malls and subdivisions; I was immediately impressed by the film’s cool and quiet tone, Paul Brickman’s crisp, clever direction and Tangerine Dream’s evocative, influential score. There was no doubt in the theater that young Tom Cruise, whom I’d only seen as a psychotic soldier in TAPS (1981), was a natural born movie star. He runs the gamut of emotions and expressions, and we’re with him all the way. Brickman’s screenplay was taut and funny, with humor coming from genuine character responses; Joel Goodsen and his friends seemed as real as mine, albeit older, wealthier, and worse, college-bound. At the time, I thought high school was ridiculous and college fit nowhere in my artistic plan. But Goodsen’s fears about his future ala Benjamin Braddock were rooted in success and sexuality. This was the 80’s after all.

If I didn’t identify with his white plight I still felt his pain thanks to Cruise’s winning sincerity (this might be his best performance) along with Rebecca De Mornay’s smokey, sensual persuasion. They make an attractive team and their coupling is more erotic than any PORKY’S or BACHELOR PARTY. De Mornay manages to make something new of the ol’ hooker with a heart of gold. Or in this case, a glass egg. The supporting cast is also terrific with Joe Pantoliano as a smiling cobra and Bronson Pinchot as one of the high schoolers. Oddly, the Chicago setting would figure prominently in the films of the era’s cinematic teen-meister, John Hughes, and the movie plays like a subtler version of his own work, packaged in a genuinely sexy, witty script. I recall the pleased laughter from the audience, most notably when Joel’s best friend, Miles, played to crafty perfection by my pal Curtis Armstrong, leans back during high speed pursuit and says, “I don’t believe this — I have a Trig midterm tomorrow and I’m being chased by Guido The Killer Pimp.” If the crowd wasn’t with the movie during the famed underwear dance, this was the moment that sealed the deal. And since this is 1983, RISKY BUSINESS is all about the art of the deal. Or the steal.

Ronald Reagan was president and all that implies. Hippies were out and Yuppies were in. Just Do It. I remember watching the film, completely caught up in Paul Brickman’s storytelling skills — this is an exceptional directorial debut — yet queasy at the cold materialism inherent in the presentation. Clearly, Joel’s rich, shallow parents were meant to be parodied but Brickman is more generous than Mike Nichols in THE GRADUATE, which this film is clearly emulating at least in terms of generational crisis (Bruce Surtees was even one of the two DP’s along with Raymond Villlalobos). Since the studio wanted Brickman’s more cynical ending changed to one of capitalist triumph, RISKY BUSINESS had the opposite of its intended effect, properly reflecting the new age of shameless greed and opportunity in Tom Cruise’s Wayfarers. Teen pimp as hero. One word: Plastics.

At the time, I could sense this hit movie defining a segment of the cultural gestalt. After it was over, driving home with friends and their newly minted licenses, leaning into the rear seat, the lights of suburbia glazing the window as “Everything Counts” bounced from the speakers, I was excited for the freedom of summer, for the days ahead and the future that looked so bright we all had to wear shades. RISKY BUSINESS is a time capsule of emotion for me, and watching it again, I felt the intoxicating burn of nostalgia, of an era so distant that I was almost startled at the first shot of Cruise in his varsity jacket. What the fuck…

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23 Responses to “Retro-View: Risky Business (1983)”

  1. THE FUTURIST! just purchased this on DVD. Amazing coincidence. He bought it to see the original Paul Brickman ending which is included as a special feature.

  2. i hope ray-ban sent tom a lovely bouquet for immortalising those sunnies for an entire generation of teens! (i had also only seen cruise in ‘taps’ prior to ‘the business’; his joel is just endearing and root-for-able as hell. a lot of people seem to hate tom but i can just never bring myself to do that, perhaps precisely because of joel, which was my first real experience of tom. i’m really not sure anyone could have done the role more justice)

    i saw this movie with my 3 best friends and weirdly i also remember talking about it in the car afterwards like it was yesterday. it left a strange melancholy in it’s wake, i think in part because the score is so unique and compelling and just gets into your head. i think the whole ‘hookers with hearts of gold’ deal might go down a tad less giddily for teen girls, but mornay was just something to behold as lana, smooth as silk but with a hint of danger beneath that coy, languid exterior, her true intentions and feelings for joel are never clear, she keeps you guessing with those eyes, which makes her character far more interesting than it might have been otherwise. she and tom are pretty darn sizzling.

    (also, i defy anyone who saw this as a teen at the cinema on release to hear ‘in the air tonight’ and not picture that scene on the train)

    and curtis armstrong is indeed classic in it! is he hilarious in real life?!

    • christian Says:

      Tom Cruise is indeed root-for-able and it would have been interesting had Tom Hanks or Tim Hutton (who passed) had starred. It was clearly Cruise’s moment, like Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE.

      “Strange melancholy” is right. The weird class/cultural weight of the film left me pensive even though I loved RB on pure filmmaking terms. I guess I felt the national pull towards the Greed Is Good ideal of the time. I know Harlan Ellison did not like this film for those reasons. But Brickman’s edgier intent was clearly subsumed to the happy ending, a marked shift from its more 70’s tone.

      Curtis is sweet, wry and soft-spoken, a great actor and a Harry Nilsson scholar. And he does steal all his scenes in the movie.

      And yes, it is impossible to not think of hot train sex whenever I hear that song…

    • christian Says:

      And Wayfarers experienced a 2000 percent leap in sales.

  3. ah, that’s so cute that curtis is sweet, wry and soft-spoken, and a scholar! kudos to him. i COMPLETELY and UTTERLY get your take on this film, it must be a generational/age thing

  4. ABSOLUTE MASTERPIECE, watched it HUNDREDS of times growing up, studying every one of Cruise’s mannerisms (before I lost my hair and became a fat fuck, I was a dead ringer for Cruise as a teenager, and copied his hairstyle from every new movie.)

    Give it up for Joey Pants and Richard Masur, too!

    And note the massive gaffe in the dream sequence where Cruise is raking leaves and puts on the shades and takes out a smoke… He has a pack of Marlboro Reds Soft Pack, but the cigarette he puts in his mouth is filterless, clearly not a Marlboro.

    I know this because I took up smoking because of this and Die Hard when I was 16.

  5. Christian, it’s funny, in our HE days, I coulda swore we argued over this one, with me in the defense (I thought you found the Reagan-80s vibe too off-putting). Personally, I think the picture is meant as satire, which might be lost a little because, as you and others are saying, Brickman actually likes his characters. Youth pictutres tend to piss me off (I hate, in general, their lack of empathy for other generations), RISKY BUSINESS is one of the few that doesn’t (sounds like damning with faint praise – but I love this movie.)

    There IS a sadness to it, and I think the happy ending is about like THE GRADUATE’s in that the heroes technically “won”, but it doesnt mean anything.

    p.s. I never really liked THE GRADUATE all that much.

    • christian Says:

      I’ve been hard on RISKY BUSINESS as it truly is one of those watermark films that “define a decade” — in this case it was a horrible era of destructive Reagan policies we’re still paying for today. But. The film is excellent and I’m willing to give Brickman the credit for being aware and his original ending quite changes the film’s meaning.

      I hadn’t seen the film since the 80’s when I retro-viewed it again, and I was altogether startled at how good it is and the above-average direction — Brickman would go onto make only one more film!

      As fer THE GRADUATE, it’s forever in my top five.

  6. This is an interesting film and one that is certainly a few notches above and beyond the usual teen flick that ruled the 1980s. I think more than a few people developed serious cinematic crushes on Rebecca De Mornay based on her performance in this film. Wow, was she ever incredible, not just in looks (which is obvious) but as Leah points out, in her approach to the character – there is an air of mystery to Lana and you’re never sure if she’s really digging Joel and using him or both?

    And I second the kudos to Joey Pants and Richard Masur – always good to see these guys in small but memorable roles, mixing it up!

    • christian Says:

      Yes, it’s never too clear what her intent is but they didn’t make her into a turn-around-redeemable character. I like their relationship as it ends, with friendly uncertainty, tho Brickman had a different intent.

      Masur rules and I was happy to see him get an 80’s resurgence with THE THING as well.

  7. Don’t forget Masur in License to Drive back when Heather Graham was piping-hot bait fresh out of the oven.

  8. my mum bought her first wayfarers right after seeing this. i wasn’t allowed to even come near this movie, saw it way later, in my late teens. really loved it, massive sexual arousal, and beautiful TD score, still playing in loop on my playlist.

    love this neon 80’s strain, xian.
    what’s next ? footloose ? (sorry)

    • Yeah, I’m diggin the neon ’80s thang as well. Maybe LESS THAN ZERO?

    • christian Says:

      The TD score is actually taken from their other albums, tho it was this and THIEF that turned me into a hardcore fan.

      I was going to create a new column called TOTALLY 80’S and start full bore on the decade, but it sounds like a pastel pit of nostalgic despair.

      I’m on it.

      • christian Says:

        LESS THAN ZERO on the way.

      • Huzzah. It’s weird but I know how you feel. Looking at many of the films I’ve covered in my blog a helluva lot of ’em come from the 1980s! I guess it’s due to the fact that I grew up during that decade and so a lot of what I saw made a great impression in one way or the other.

        Anyways, looking forward to yer thoughts on LESS THAN ZERO. I’ve been thinking about writing something about it. I already took a look at its east coast counterpart BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY.

        • christian Says:

          Yep, I recall your BLBC piece. It’s as you said, an interesting cast with ideas that never fully gel or play out. These 80’s decadent novels didn’t translate well to the screen…as I’ll go into on LESS THAN ZERO.

  9. Frank B Says:

    I went looking for that original ending and found this instead:

    Amazing what any schmuck with a computer can do these days.

    • christian Says:

      I think that was only used in the original preview. Then the studio realized they still need another 80 minutes of film.

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