Risky Business (1983)
D. Paul Brickman
[NOTE: Occasional strong language and possible spoilers.]
Slick, trashy, obvious and irresistible. Whatever it was meant to be–document, satire, pure product, personal statement (the writer/director, Paul Brickman, has done nothing of similar significance since)–Risky Business ended up as the definitive response of the Eighties to the Sixties.
Or, as the movie has it, almost as trenchantly:
Sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck!
That’s the message. You can look around and judge the results for yourself. But don’t sell any movie short that caught the zeitgeist of its moment and tracked the future so well without pausing for breath.
If you were alive and culturally cognizant you know some of it. Even if you were neither you probably know the gist.
Hello Tom Cruise (the Last Movie Star). Hello Rebecca DeMornay (a considerable presence herself over the coming decade).
Welcome to Hell, in other words.
Though it’s often characterized as satire–mocking, as opposed to reveling in, the new conventions–I give it more credit than that. Circa 1983, what was there to mock, as opposed to revel in?
Sure, the idea of materialism as the final consummation of the American Dream was making headway, but it hadn’t fully arrived. For that, you needed a Big Event, and while Risky Business wasn’t exactly the Beatles on Sullivan or even Jaws, it was big enough. This is how we will live, the movie seemed to say, with a force few others have ever matched. And, looking at it now (more fun than ever once you see it as Brett Kavanaugh’s Real Diary–if fun’s the word), you can see why not too many wanted to resist. It prettied up everything.
What seventeen-year-old boy from the suburbs (or anywhere else) has not wanted to bend Rebecca DeMornay’s long, Playmate body over a window seat or a stairwell or the inside of a subway car? And, absent Morality, which circa 1983, had been whupped to a frazzle, what would you think of him if she was on offer and he said no? To any sex at all, but especially guilt-free, consequence-free, Beautiful Hooker Sex?
Of course, the narrative trick in Risky Business is that it holds out the idea there just might be consequences after all. Not guilt, of course, (Morality being whupped and all that) but maybe going to jail….or at least being grounded. Maybe not being able to get your folks’ stuff back after you walk in the house and find it all gone?
Better yet, getting your face pounded in or your balls shot off by the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp? Either before or after he absconded with your folks’ stuff.
Any and all of that might have happened to Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson. Even after you’v seen the movie you can’t dismiss the possibility some modern equivalent of penitence might be in order or at least in the offing. That it doesn’t come, that it all works out somehow (in grandly entertaining fashion I should hasten to add), turns out the be the point. How else could the Eighties demolish the Sixties? How else could all that Peace and Love be consigned to history’s ash-heap? (There’s even a scene where the old ethos is mocked openly but the rest of movie renders it gratuitous, one of the few false notes). How else could the film drive home its final message? Only hedonism remains.
I can say with some assurance that most of us didn’t need Tom Cruise dancing alone in his underwear and cool shirt to provide any pointers, just to codify the new reality. (The shirt was important–just your underwear was way too gay. Or fairy or fag or queer or homo, as those who thought putting the Sixties in the rear view mirror was an idea whose time had come, were more likely to say then, or, when they think no one’s listening, now.) I was a divided soul myself. I liked the part of the Sixties hippies had swiped from the New Testament (or its own reputed sources). By the time I saw Risky Business, I also knew that part had been vanquished.
The hedonism was being celebrated–and with Risky Business, given its own Testament and set of rituals, good for a generation at least–because it was all that was left, but also because, like all consequence-free behavior does in the moment–it felt good.
It’s only when you look around the house (if you’re still living with your parents), or the apartment (if you’ve made it to college or beyond) that you realize the come down from the high you got from dancing in a way you’ll never do in public (unless maybe intoxicated, which everyone knows is cheating because, that far gone, it isn’t really you), has only left you a little empty.
Where Risky Business approaches Art, and maybe not even accidental art, is in that empty moment, after Cruise and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” have created the film’s iconography but before the plot kicks in, when the great problem of the Modern Age our now-despised forefathers created for us to muck about in is lurking in every room of Dad’s house, confronting our hero.
It’s where the otherwise self-repelling styles of Sixties and Eighties hedonism meet like lightning and thunder: The Teenager’s brain…and what to do.
What Joel Goodson would probably do on his own is nothing–maybe another dance that wouldn’t be quite as exciting, then poker with the boys, where they can drink beer and pretend to already be the bored, listless men they’ll become, bragging about the nookie they’ve never had but which otherwise defines their dreams–the only part of their existence that isn’t boring since they live at home and aren’t allowed to get drunk or high enough to forget where they are.
But Joel has a friend–I imagine anyone who has had as many friends as Joel had had one–who lives to get other people in the trouble he plans to avoid himself.
Joel’s friend is Miles.
Twenty minutes after Miles gets Joel in trouble by calling a Hooker, the Beautiful Hooker who came when the first, inevitable, Comically Transgendered Hooker didn’t work out, is riding in Joel’s Dad’s car, asking Miles if he likes excitement.
The question is pertinent since the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp is following along behind, shooting at them.
Even the first time you see the movie, you know it’s going to work out somehow, and one of the ways I give Risky Business enormous credit is that it doesn’t take the path of True Love. After all the plot machinations have played themselves out, the movie doesn’t cheat its own premise. The sex and the shooting and the playing with fire but not quite getting burned was the whole point.
Other parts of the movie want to have it both ways–that’s real hedonism, the avoidance of not merely pain but discomfort. But the end doesn’t offer a way out. It’s evident, even in the ending Hollywood imposed, that Joel Goodson will live to feel empty again…and that the Beautiful Hooker has never felt otherwise.
They’re just coming down off bigger highs.
That was the story of the part of the Sixties that made the Eighties possible if not inevitable.
It’s never going to be told better.
The Last Movie Star was on his way.