Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
We all know the scene. Tom Cruise. Pink dress shirt. Boxer shorts. Bob Seger. He slid into his parents’ living room and into the American consciousness. The scene is ubiquitous in lists of iconic movie scenes. I probably saw the scene itself or homages to it thirty times before I even knew who Tom Cruise was (I was four years old when Risky Business came out). It can be a little odd checking out a film when one scene is already thoroughly engraved in memory through years of repetition.
Among other things, it caused me to misread what the overall tone of Risky Business is. I had thought, given the scene and the basic premise, that the film was a straight-up comedy. In fact, it’s a comedy-drama, and in a lot of ways the drama is played more heavily than the comedy. That’s not to say there aren’t laughs here and there — there certainly are — but they aren’t played up as much as most teen comedies, and there isn’t the typical effort to string them together. They just turn up now and then in a movie that’s mostly about a boy trying to sort out where his life is going.
Cruise plays Joel, a yuppie son of yuppie parents in his last year of high school. He’s a member of Future Enterprisers, a club for students who want to break into business school. He’s taken the SAT and is worried about his score. He’s trying to get into an Ivy League school; Princeton for preference. Everything starts to go askew when his parents go on vacation without him for a week, and one of his friends suggests this is a chance for Joel to loosen up and live a little — and “helps” Joel out by calling a prostitute over for him. Soon Joel finds things spiraling out of control as Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) disrupts his life, fails to leave, and decides to set up shop in his house.
It has “wacky hijinks” written all over it, and to a certain extent that description fits. But unlike a lot of films, Risky Business lets the audience just sit back and enjoy the gradual increase of mayhem without punctuating it with a lot of obvious jokes. There are only a few scenes where there’s an overt punchline or a direct visual gag. The scenes don’t need punchlines. It’s an approach that would be anathema to a comedy maker today; it’s impossible to picture Adam Sandler, for example, putting his characters in a situation that’s funny without having them cracking wise every three seconds about it. But in Risky Business, Cruise reacts like a normal person would: sometimes calm, sometimes frustrated, but only occasionally coming up with a sharp quip. Writer-director Paul Brickman gives the audience enough credit to assume that they’ll find things funny even if the characters don’t make their own jokes. The situation is enough of a joke on its own. What’s more, this approach strengthens the punchlines that are made by not diluting them.
Cruise and De Mornay are both very well suited to their roles. Cruise’s Joel quickly comes across as somebody who isn’t quite as in control as he thinks, and is a little more naive and inexperienced than he likes to come across as. Lana is the opposite, somebody who puts on a show of being naive and innocent, but has a lot more going on under the surface. The drama and the humor both largely come from the interplay between these two, but there are also a few fun side characters. The friend that gets Joel into the mess is recognizable to just about anybody; we’ve all had that one friend who insists on telling people to live for the moment and is never around when consequences come calling. The prolific Joe Pantoliano turns in a small but memorable performance as another in his long line of lowlifes, this time as De Mornay’s pimp. And children of the 80s will be amused to see a pre-Balki Bronson Pinchot, though it’s a small role that doesn’t really get many great lines. (To be honest, if it weren’t for the plot requiring Joel to have multiple friends, it would have made for stronger characters had his best friends been merged together).
From the “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” scene, it’s only natural to expect something along the lines of Animal House. But despite being about a guy setting up a brothel in his parents’ house, Risky Business is a much quieter comedy. But it’s still a very good one.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.