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…