|Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 01 January 2003|
As pointed out in the unfortunately rather boring audio commentary by director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe, Universal was wary of the film. Unlike comparable movies like AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which were generally set in the past, there's no sense of nostalgia in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH; it's about the teenagers who went to see the movie (in droves) -- we see only one parent, and her briefly. The venue is the high school of the title, the local mall, teenagers' rooms and various fast-food joints where some of them work. And these kids are smoking dope, taking drugs and having sex. They regard their own lives very seriously, and while the movie basically does, it is still essentially a comedy, and a funny one.
This is largely thanks to the inventive, authentic performance of Sean Penn as the memorable Jeff Spicoli, the school's major stoner and surfer, who's pretty bright when he has to be, but who never takes anything quite seriously, mostly because he doesn't quite notice anything. Movies had never seen anything like Spicoli before, with his Valley Dude lingo ("awesome" is a favorite word), long blonde hair, throaty chuckles and his airhead demeanor. Penn instantly established an archetype, an icon, and we've been suffering through Spicoli imitations ever since 1982. Awesome, bud.
Crowe was a reporter for Rolling Stone who, at 19, still looked young enough to pass himself off as a high school student -- and that's what he did, going back to classes and taking different kinds of notes. His book Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a best-seller, a big surprise to parents and other adults, but simply the truth to America's teenagers. The surprising aspect of the movie was that Crowe was allowed to adapt the book himself, turning his well-observed fact into equally well-observed fiction.
The movie traces a year in the life of a handful of Ridgemont High students. There are Spicoli and Stacy, of course, but also her older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), who at first feels he has life well in hand during his senior year. However, things go badly for Brad, though never tragically. Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) takes tickets at the mall's movie theater, and moons from a distance over Stacy, who, thanks to the bad but earnest advice of her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), is sure she should go out only with "older" men. Rat's best friend is Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), evidently a transfer from back east, who considers himself ultra-cool, and is a busy ticket scalper and seller of minor drugs. But he's not as cool as he thinks. Spicoli's nemesis is tough, stern history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), a no-nonsense guy who likes Spicoli despite himself.
The movie tends to be rather sloppily organized, and skips over lots of stuff that should have been dealt with, like how Spicoli gets back into Mr. Hand's class. Some of the characters, such as Stacy, mysteriously disappear from the movie for a while. Despite Crowe's research, Heckerling tends to direct the comedy scenes rather too broadly, so the serious scenes tend to stand out more than they should.
The movie was one of the first to have what are now considered gross-out scenes, as when Linda accidentally bursts in on Brad, who's beating off in the bathroom, having aroused himself over a fantasy of her taking off her bathing suit. (A memorable scene to be sure, and it's likely more teenagers than just Brad reacted as he does.) And there are several scenes of Spicoli and his two buds (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards) tumbling out of a smoke-filled surfer van.
All teenage movies in one way or another are coming-of-age stories, and that's definitely true of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH; by the end of the movie, each one of the characters has gone through a major life change, though few of them recognize it as yet -- just as it should be. Life is what happens to us while we're busy doing something else.
The DVD includes an interesting where-are-they-now documentary about the cast and locations of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, which is notable for the number of future stars who appear in small roles. It was, for example, the first film of Nicolas Cage, billed under his original name, Nicolas Coppola. Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards were considered for the role of Spicoli until Heckerling met Sean Penn; Stoltz and Edwards wound up with the consolation prizes of Spicoli's two surfing-and-doping buds. The big black football player, so impressive that one awed kid says, "Wow, does he really live here? I thought he just flew in for games," is played by Forest Whitaker, who was so delighted to get the role, we're told, that after the audition, he skipped back to his car. A surprising array of RIDGEMONT HIGH alumni are interviewed, including a quiet, thoughtful Sean Penn. But no one mentions the short-lived spin-off TV series, even though Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli continued their roles from the movie.
The narration track by Heckerling and Crowe isn't half as interesting as the documentary; there's too much reminiscing, sometimes about minor details -- they seem to talk about a Led Zeppelin song for twenty minutes -- and not enough about locations, cut scenes or the difficulties of making the film. And they certainly don't mention the "TV safe" scenes and alternate takes that were used for the broadcast and cable telecasts of the movie.
Heckerling continues to direct, occasionally hitting the bullseye, as with CLUELESS. Crowe makes movies only rarely, but when he does, it's always an interesting event, and sometimes more than that: his most recent film was JERRY MAGUIRE.
Although the DVD is in mono, a disfavor to the many songs on the track, the film itself is still funny, intelligent and one of the most faithful and accurate views of American teenagers at a particular time in our social history.