By Marc S. Sanders
It’s telling of how happily cash rich people were all to proud to carry themselves in the 1980s Reagan era. It was not a time to focus on emotions and sensitivity. War was over. Shopping malls were all over the place. Credit cards were easy to get and use. Forget about what happens later. Heck even the music was happy and fun with acts from Wham! The Go Go’s and Katrina And The Waves. Maybe it was not as apparent, compared to today’s “Me Too”/”Black Lives Matter” themes, to focus on the minorities or even basic charity. Free enterprise was the theme. Profits and prestige were the goals. It was even taught to be that way in high school. Love was not important. Making money was the all rage. Making money and spending money-including your savings bonds from grandma and grandpa. Paul Brickman’s Risky Business was evidence of that mentality. Long before, it ever became transparent that well to do parents could buy their kid’s Ivy League education for a promising future, just the idea of mounting pressure to get into a school like Princeton University was a terrible ordeal for a 17 year old kid.
Tom Cruise’s breakout role of Joel Goodson, with his sock covered feet, pink polo shirt and BVD white underpants faced this issue, and yet it was not Joel’s most important problem to contend with. Risky Business showed us the first couch that Cruise jumped up and down on with help from Bob Seger. Cruise’s career was never the same ever since this 1983 film. It only got sexier and better and outrageously more successful following this film.
Brickman’s script which he directed was one of the first commercially successful 80’s teen flicks to adopt the concept of the parents are out of town, so let’s party approach. Only thing is beyond joyriding in dad’s Porsche, Joel is not as obsessed with popular jock/cheerleader parties, as he is with getting laid. He dreams of gorgeous naked girls in the shower and on his bed, or who is on the other end of the line when he calls an escort personal ad. Yet, paranoia takes over for Joel. His WASP parents seemed to have instilled Joel with fear of a S.W.A.T team nightmare if he even dares to make out with a strange and exotic woman in their beautiful suburban home. Through a set of circumstances that disrupts Joel’s comfortable fantasies and strait-laced activities, a high priced and ravishing call girl named Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) enters Joel’s life and his dad’s Porche, and his house and then, doesn’t leave. Joel gets his cherry popped, but things go awry like in most 80s teen comedies. The Porsche needs to be towed out of Lake Michigan, his mother’s precious crystal egg needs to be recovered from Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano), and Joel has to remember to interview well on Friday night with a Princeton admissions advisor.
All of this sounds familiar. These themes have been copied countless times over. Yet Paul Brickman goes in an extraordinary direction that remains original nearly 40 years later. His characters of Joel and Lana are smart. They are portrayed with great instinct by Cruise and DeMornay, who are never playing for laughs and allow the gradual situations of the script to deliver the humor. Joel is the student. Lana is the teacher. By the end, they’ll likely be on an even playing field.
SPOILER ALERT: The third act is the true highlight, as the world’s oldest profession becomes a business of free enterprise to make Lana money and rescue Joel from impending doom on a hundred different angles.
As I’ve written before, I love character arcs in all kinds of stories. Brickman writes Joel as a rigid and by the book kind of kid with his shirt neatly tucked in, a preppy chestnut brown haircut, docksiders and well pressed jeans and khakis. This kid will not even get a speeding ticket, regardless of the Porsche’s horsepower. Only after experiencing sex and the possibility of going outside the lines like Lana demonstrates, does Joel realize the value of throwing caution to the wind; more specifically, as the script proudly reminds us “Sometimes you just have to say What The Fuck!”
To sidestep for a moment, when I finally saw James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, all I walked away with was a very cool looking guy with a red jacket, white t-shirt and blue jeans. Not much dimension there. Pretty flat if you ask me. Then, I’m reminded of Risky Business. Here is a hallmark film of teen angst. Joel’s episodes in one week, while mom and dad are away, are not likely to happen in real life. Yet, Brickman doesn’t aim for farce. The laughs come in clashing the sons of Chicago white suburbia WASP culture with the nightlife these boys only dream about.
With Tangerine Dream offering up a cool dreamlike soundtrack, Risky Business is exotic and sexy and dangerous and then it’s funny. Very, very funny.