Friday, March 27, 2015

#1,684. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Directed By: Amy Heckerling

Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold

Tag line: "Fast Cars, Fast Girls, Fast Carrots...Fast Carrots?"

Trivia: Jennifer Jason Leigh's real life father, Vic Morrow, died in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie about 3 weeks before the US release of this film

The opening credits sequence of Fast Times at Ridgemont High features a few scenes set inside the Ridgemont Mall. Watching the movie again today, I immediately flashed back to my own teenage years, when my friends and I would spend Friday nights hanging out at our local shopping mall, which looked identical to the one in this film (the Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the fictional Ridgemont). I’m talking exactly like it, from the arcade and food court right down to the staircases and glass elevator. 

It was the first of several memories that came rushing back as I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, including how much I love this film.

15-year-old Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore at Ridgemont High, is desperately searching for a boyfriend. Following the advice of her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), Stacy dates several guys, including classmate Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who has a crush on her; as well as Mark’s pal, Mike Damone (Richard Romanus), a con man who has a way with the ladies. 

Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), in his senior year at Ridgemont, has decided to break it off with his longtime girlfriend Lisa (Amanda Wyss) so that he can ‘play the field’, but is fired from his job before he can end things with her. 

As Stacy, Brad, and the others are dealing with the issues that affect most kids their age, classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is having a great time surfing waves, smoking dope with his buddies (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards), and tormenting history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) every chance he gets.

Written by Cameron Crowe, whose experiences posing as a high school student formed the basis of the novel that inspired this film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High captures teen life in the ‘80s much better than some critics gave it credit for at the time. Roger Ebert was especially harsh in his 1-star write-up, calling Fast Timesa scuz-pit of a movie” in which “the humor comes from raunchy situations and dialogue”. 

Yes, it is occasionally raunchy; along with a couple of sex scenes and a very memorable daydream sequence, there’s a moment involving carrots that fueled the fantasies of an entire generation of young men. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High also offers some genuine insight into the teenage experience, including fear of responsibility (despite his cool demeanor, Mike Damone proves he’s just as scared as everyone else, and leaves Stacy to face a difficult situation on her own), awkward first dates (Mark’s and Stacy’s night on the town ends rather abruptly), and, most traumatic of all, high school biology class, with a curriculum that was clearly devised by a sadist (I never went on a class trip to the hospital, but I did dissect a few of nature’s more disgusting creatures). So while the humor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High does sometimes aim low, it's situations reach higher than most teen comedies of this era.

Along with Crowe’s script, Fast Times at Ridgemont High boasts an outstanding young cast, many of whom would go on to bigger and better things. Jennifer Jason Leigh convincingly portrays Stacy as a confused young woman so eager to lose her virginity that she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences, and the stunning Phoebe Cates is exceptional as the worldly best friend who, it turns out, doesn’t have all the answers. In addition to these two, the movie features Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s older brother Brad, who has trouble holding onto a job; and Forest Whitaker as football star Charles Jefferson, an often-angry dude who singlehandedly wins a big game for the home team. And keep an eye out for Nicolas Cage (billed as Nicolas Coppola), making his big-screen debut.

Then there’s Sean Penn as the oft-stoned Jeff Spicoli, a surfer whose sole purpose in life is to have a good time. Despite its ensemble cast, some of whom get considerably more screen time than he does, Penn’s Spicoli is the character that immediately pops to mind when I think of this film; his various run-ins with Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand are arguably the movie’s most hilarious scenes.

While the years may have altered my perspective a bit (back in the day, I agreed with Spicoli when he called Mr, Hand a “dick”. Now, I see the poor guy was more patient than I ever gave him credit for), they haven’t changed how much I enjoy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Every time I watch this movie, I’m a teenager again, and that’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world.


Solomon Grundy said...

Awesome film.

Jake Moore AKA: @RiverCityOtter said...

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" not only holds up well with time. It also has an amazing soundtrack of early 1980's rock! I agree I've always enjoyed this film & it's very re-watchable too!