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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

by on 2011/09/01

“You’ll probably squeak by.”

* * *

On many lists of movies about school, you’ll find Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Based on Cameron Crowe’s writing about “real life” at the turn of the Eighties, this otherwise-disposable confection improbably lives on. I firmly believe it does so mainly on account of Crowe’s later, better efforts, like Say Anything and Almost Famous.

And possibly because the two lead females are naked in it . . . a lot.

Amy Heckerling directs a famous — or soon-to-be — ensemble including: Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates, Anthony Edwards, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Vincent Schiavelli, Eric Stoltz, Ray Walston, Forest Whitaker, and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

In various parts, large and small, these actors provide a backdrop for the story’s most prominent arc: Mike (Robert Romanus) competes against his best friend Mark (Brian Backer) to win the charms of the promiscuous Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

It’s easy to miss the through-line of love for the noise of lust everywhere. Whether at home, in the mall, or at school, Fast Times’ environments reward being on the prowl at all times.

In fact, the conquests and nudity come so readily that none of it means much in time. In a world this mercenary, angst simply doesn’t exist. Neither do characters. Everyone is a shallow caricature. Anyone does anything, nobody really hurts, and everything is played for unfunny laughs: drinking and driving, drug use, and pregnancy. If you were one of those humourless types offended by The Simpsons’ “underachiever” scandal, you’re definitely going to hate this too.

My first association was with The Powerpuff Girls Movie, provocative in its way but ultimately of no significance. In the end, however, I thought more of Meatballs. Similarly, Fast Times is loosely episodic, a sprawling cast in scattershot slices of life, over a vague timeframe. They both present the decorations of a particular time and place, though only enough to remind those who lived through both. Unless you’re already familiar with its experiences, there’s little to make you feel or understand.

Which brings me to the first of exactly three things I enjoyed: the retro Eighties trappings of its world . . . the fashions, music, posters, and video games.

The handling of a totaled car was the second (that I won’t spoil).

The final was a scene between “siblings” Leigh and Reinhold, neatly capping a rare and meaningful thread.

The trouble is, it’s neither dramatic enough to be a drama, nor funny enough to be a comedy. Its inhabitants are usually flat (except when they’re getting undressed) and the awkward, tacked-on issues are then dismissed too flippantly. Why bother having exploited them at all?

Toward the end, Leigh’s Tracy says, “I finally figured it out. I don’t want sex . . . I want a relationship, I want romance.” She’s just hit upon — symbolically — the core failing of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s almost totally provocation, knee-jerk novelty. There’s nothing much of substance here, nothing to make newbies love it.

Besides, they can find its nude screen caps online without wasting ninety minutes.

* * *

Rated R for adult situations, language, nudity, and substance abuse

90 minutes

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