Movies That Rule: Risky Business (1983)
Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) really lives up to his last name—he studies hard, hangs out with generally good kids, has a host of extracurricular activities, and is just waiting for that one chance to break out of his shell and fuck it all up. It’ll come as no surprise that Risky Business is one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. I was Joel Goodson during my high-school career, constantly set on succeeding academically and athletically. My teachers liked me, my friends were smart and well-behaved, and my parents constantly pushed me to succeed. But most of my friends, and hell, most suburban 17-year old guys in the country were like Joel in more ways than not. Watching Joel is like watching yourself carefully tread through high school, thinking your GPA and the number of bogus clubs you belong to are actually harbingers of future success.
Most of all, Risky Business clicks because the script captures what it’s like to be in high school, not just in the early-1980s, but at any time—the characters, even the minor ones, are well-developed and given intelligent, clever things to say. And beneath all the witticisms exchanged, uncertainty ties almost every character together. Joel, who we meet right off the bat (to the sounds of a spooky Tangerine Dream soundtrack), lights up a cigarette while doing yard work, and whispers that brilliant phrase, “The dream is always the same.” The first scenes are surreal—he’s fighting his way through steam in a bathroom to find a naked girl in the shower. And then…he’s quickly transported to a dull public-school classroom where he realizes he’s nearly three hours late for his SATs. He’ll never go to college. It’s that age-old forgotten course dream we’ve all had—you know, the one where you realize you haven’t shown up for class all semester, don’t know what room it meets in, and the final’s only two days away.
Risky Business, after this opening montage, cuts quickly back to reality. We meet Joel’s friends and parents. His friends are your standard suburbanites, playing poker in someone’s basement, drinking cheap light beer, and smoking $2 cigars. They’re all about seven months from graduation, wondering where their lives are going, hoping they’ll make good livings, hoping they can finally get the courage to lose their virginities. Joel’s friends, like I said, are smart and witty, though. They discuss sex almost constantly, though none of them have ever gotten any. When Joel was face-to-face with a half-naked babysitter the weekend before, he couldn’t get up the nerve to make a move. His buddies tease him mercilessly, and the funniest guy, Miles (Curtis Armstrong), tells Joel that instead of making a move, “I bet you got on your bike, pedaled home, and whacked off.”
When they aren’t talking about the wonders of the female anatomy, they’re talking about their futures, usually in terms of dollar signs. At a burger joint, Joel asks his friends if they want to do anything important or “just make money.” They all respond with “Just make money” and “Make a lotta money.” Joel says half-sincerely that he’d rather “serve his fellow mankind” and gets pelted with French fries.
Living in an upper-class neighborhood in suburban Chicago, one that resembles something out of a Leave it to Beaver episode, Joel is constantly pressured by his parents on one side and his friends on the other. Miles, who’s so intelligent that he’s not worried about his future one bit, tells him that “Sometimes you just gotta say, ‘what the fuck.’ Make your move.” Conversely, his parents, about to leave town for week long Caribbean vacation, are cold, realistic and demanding (although there’s a nice twist on the “what the fuck” bit between Joel and his father later on).
Our introduction to Joel’s parents is soundtracked by a song that sounds out of an early-‘60s sitcom. Her first line in the film: “So Joel, did you get your SAT scores?” After hearing of Joel’s decent 1160, his mother doesn’t show emotion one way or the other. She only wants to know if he can take them again. Soon after, Joel’s father comes into the kitchen and harangues him about changing the levels on the stereo’s equalizer. Then, his dad drops the bomb: he’s scheduled a meeting with a Princeton admissions counselor for Joel. And though we suspect he’s definitely University of Illinois material—at least on paper—there’s not much he can say except, “Oh come on, Dad! You know I’ll never get into Princeton.”
Joel is a shy kid when it comes to confrontation, and seems afraid to shake up his sheltered, good-grades suburban worldview. He speaks meekly to his parents, using phrases like “I guess so,” or “I’ll try,” but we sense that, and we get only a the smallest sense that he’ll push his limits when his parents leave. His father, whose pride and joy is an old ‘80s Porsche Turbo, tells him not to touch anything of value in the house, especially the car.
Joel does the typical teenager-home-alone thing right away, throwing down glasses of his dad’s 12-year old scotch, dancing around in his underwear to Bob Seger’s classic “Old Time Rock and Roll.” He does what we all would do when the parents left us alone for a few days. Stealing beers from the fridge. Inviting friends over to play cards on a weeknight. Sitting around without pants on. The usual.
But Joel’s adventure is just beginning. He and his friend Barry, another kid terrified of living up to his parents’ and society’s expectations, are part of a future enterprisers club, struggling to invent, market, and sell a completely useless product. Neither of them is all that interested in the club; rather, they’re just interested in what it might do for their permanent records.
When Barry comes over to try their “invention” out, Joel’s buddy Glenn brings a girl over to his house, begging him for a free room to bang in. Joel obliges. The love-making gets loud (“Grunt twice if you read me…”), so Barry and Joel leave, and take his dad’s Porsche out for a spin, and inspiring one of the funniest conversations (topics include: breast sizes and the difference between “boffing” and “fucking”).
What’s most amazing about Risky Business is that, within about twenty minutes, we’ve experienced all of this. A lot of ‘80s movies are all style, full of synthesized soundtracks and stock teenage characters. Whatever character development there is in the first half-hour is about all we’ll get. Then, those characters just become part of a typical plot, with either contrived romances, unrealistic action sequences, or unnecessary ‘drama.’ Risky Business, thankfully, has barely taxied on the runway.
“So you’ve done the old man’s car bit? That’s good. Now try this on for size,” Miles, says as they crack open some after school beers in the parent-free house. Miles, always pushing things one step further, tries to talk Joel into something totally nuts—calling a hooker from a sleazy newspaper. When Joel objects, Miles agrees he’ll just “call for himself.”
Joel can only watch in horror as his friend calls a prostitute, gives Joel’s name and address, hangs up, smiles, rips the listing out of the paper, and shoves it in his mouth.
There are hilarious complications. The woman, a black transvestite that dwarfs Tom Cruise, knocks on the door a few hours later ready to have some fun. After spending more than half of the money his parents gave him for the week to pay for her cab fare and “infinite patience,” he gets the number for Lana (Rebecca DeMornay), a smoking hot blonde that seems to cater to the Suburban fantasies of guys like Joel, Miles, Glenn and Barry. Her entrance, again set to Tangerine Dream, is a real thing of beauty—the back door blows open, leaves swirl in and out of the house, and there she stands, five-foot-ten, with gorgeous legs, ass, and breasts. And Joel, telling her his name is Ralph, cannot possibly resist this goddess.
After having more fun in one night than he’s probably had in his entire life, Joel is horrified to find out he’s just done $300 worth of fucking, way more than his parents gave him for the week’s “just in case of emergencies” fund. In an attempt to pay her, he asks, “Can I send it to you?” Of course, he ends up having to run to the bank to cash in a bond his grandparents gave him (in a short, but subtly funny scene).
When he returns to pay for the adventure, she’s already hit the road, taking his mother’s ritzy glass egg as collateral. If his father’s prized possession is the car, his mother’s is the somewhat tacky egg that seems, throughout the remainder of the picture, to symbolize the rampant suburban materialism of the Reagan years.
The rest of the film, in a very flimsy nutshell, is a cat-and-mouse game followed by a money-making scheme that shows Joel isn’t just a lightweight rich kid with shit for brains. And in one great scene that’s only half as good as the next, it’s apparent that Tom Cruise was quite the young actor. There’s been much speculation about him in the past decade or so—he’s a strong believer in a crackpot religion, he denies that post-partum depression actually exists, and so on and so forth. These statements make many forget that he’s actually quite talented—a guy turned in brilliant performances in films like Jerry Maguire (1996), Minority Report (2003) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Joel ably switches personas in the pic—starting out as the shy overachiever, he blossoms into a person with more depth and intelligence. In one standout scene, Joel and Miles track Lana down to get their egg back. Miles, the kid who’s already into Harvard, headed for a life of riches, accompanies Joel to a ritzy hotel that Lana apparently frequents with her pimp, and soon finds his “what the fuck” mantra put to the test. Suddenly, Miles is riding in the backseat of the Porsche, being chased by Lana’s ‘manager’ (Joe Pantaliano, in one of the funniest performances). He quietly muses, “I’ve got a trig midterm tomorrow, and I’m being chased by Guido the killer pimp.” The famous last words, as they pull into the driveway, are supremely well-chosen:
Joel: Porsche. There is no substitute.
Miles: Fuck you!
Still, after some surprisingly good action scenes and a car chase, the blossoming chemistry between Lana and Joel forms the center of the film. Lana, far from the average movie hooker, plays something of a foil to Joel—while he’s the academic, Ivy-League wannabe, he knows little about how “the other half” lives. Lana, far from the conventional “hooker with the heart of gold” (see: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman), is just as quick as Joel; her street-smarts are clearly contrasted with his insular book-smarts. And as the relationship grows, we see a mutual respect between them because they are equally ambitious. She’s able to use all these symbols of suburban materialism, whether it be the Porsche, the furniture, or the egg, to get exactly what she wants.
Roger Ebert once mused that so many films simply employ female characters as hookers because the scriptwriters are too unimaginative to make women three-dimensional. The filmmakers killed two birds with one stone—creating an interesting female lead that’s good at sex, better at business, but loveable all the same. When Joel asks her why she never went to college, she seems offended. About thirty seconds later, when things unfold, we know she probably never needed that education. And maybe if she actually went to get it, she’d be an all-star student.
The following scenes, that include one of Lana’s friends moving in with Joel, and a very funny exchange between Guido the killer pimp and Joel right in his front yard, all lead up to a surprising and amusing scene involving marijuana, Lake Michigan and Mr. Goodson’s sports car. As Joel and Lana have the aforementioned conversation—about dreams, parents, ambitions, school—Lana suggests that they “get their friends together” to make a lot of money. You can see mutual respect here, but Joel, afraid of the consequences (What 17-year old wouldn’t be afraid of inviting rich white kids and prostitutes into his parents $500,000 mansion?) turns her down. And, if you’ve been paying attention to the movie at all up until this point, you can guess which character’s going to win this battle. How she wins is obviously the most rewarding part.
Lana forces Joel into dire straits—not least of all because he’s missed two midterms—and leaves him with nowhere else to turn. Meanwhile, Guido the killer pimp is making both their lives tough because of Lana’s earlier assertion that her and her friend now work for Joel. The following scenes, leading up to an epic payoff, do little to make Guido a very happy pimp.
It was great the way her mind worked…
Joel muses this simple thought, and the film rapidly changes course once again. The setup for the hookers/rich-white-kids get together, set to Muddy Waters’ “Boyish Man,” is very well done—a montage that is especially good when Lana’s friends start to descend on the house. While I’m of course partial to the Rocky IV training sequences with “Hearts on Fire” and “No Easy Way Out,” this one, empirically, is a whole lot better. Joel becomes cool as hell (wardrobe: gray camel hair blazer over a black t-shirt, tight jeans, Converse All-Stars, Marlboro Red perched between the lips at all times; best quote: his passing-along of Miles’ “what the fuck” line), and Lana works as his tutor, telling him exactly how to get the party off the ground. The few seconds they spend in the mattress store are gold.
Joel sells Lana’s idea to his buddies, and their buddies, and their cousin’s brother’s friends—if they’re gonna make it in college the following year, they need knowledge about sex. As Joel describes it to one of his friends,
College women can smell ignorance. Like dogshit.
It’s pretty much a guarantee that his “clients,” who’ve probably spent many nights like Joel and his friends discussing and joking about sex around the card table, are gonna be showing up at the party, and throwing down a few bucks to get a crash course in Female Anatomy 101. Watching Joel’s dialogue during this portion is another one of the film’s great charms.
The party, you’d think, would be an unequivocal success. In other movies, things might have worked out. Not in Risky Business. For starters, the guy from Princeton’s admission board shows up that night to meet with Joel. His parents will be home the next day. His glass egg is back, but Guido knows what Lana and Joel are planning and is sure to make more trouble for Joel. And then there’s that quintessential ‘80s sex scene, set on a real train, soundtracked by none other than Mr. “Invisible Touch,” Phil Collins.
It’s best to actually watch all of these events unfold on screen rather than reading about them. All I can say is, shit goes down at a breakneck speed, but the ending never once feels hurried. It’s a credit to director Paul Brickman that Risky Business, which starts with some funny dialogue between five friends at a poker table, blossoms into an adventure that has you on the edge of your seat, and still manages to squeeze in a sort of whimsical ending that isn’t tacked-on. Every loose end is tied up quickly and skillfully with tight scripting, a surprisingly effective “race against the clock” scene, and a few moments of quiet conversation between these two wonderful characters.
And suddenly it’s all over, and all we’re left with is Joel’s final whisper:
“Time of your life, huh kid?”
It’s a fitting way to end such an inventive comedy.
After viewing The Girl Next Door, a film obviously inspired by Risky Business, a few weeks ago, I was reminded that making a teen comedy isn’t easy. It shamelessly tinkers with the formula used in Risky Business, but falls flatter than a pancake. Risky Business, unlike TGND, was never about stuffing stock characters into a hackneyed plot—rather the former film took a predictable story arc and fitted it with great, memorable people that were lovable, smart and determined. Someone actually bothered to write a good script. None of TGND’s elements, from its boring characters, violent and unfunny villain, ending sequence stolen from Risky Business, or atrocious casting choices, added up to more than a pile of shit.
I’m not sure why I reacted to TGND with such disgust. It might not be that the newer film is that bad, but that Risky Business is really that good. It’s obviously influential, or some no-talent hacks wouldn’t have attempted a rip-off. Rather, Risky Business aspired to be more than other teen comedies—The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High come to mind. While I love both films, and Fast Times actually touches on some pretty serious issues, Risky Business digs very deeply into its characters. It manages to capture the ‘80s gloss without letting fashion, music, or tacky romance dominate the bond between its two leads. And after watching a number of teen pics, I find there are just a handful that capture the uncertainties, witty conversations and pleasures of one’s final year in high school as perfectly.
…So after a night of staring blankly at The Girl Next Door, I got on my bike, pedaled home, and threw in Risky Business. There is no substitute.