Friday, January 13, 2012

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: Blu-ray (Universal 1982) Universal Home Video

The soft-core teen sex farce, with its interminably heavy-handed insertion of pop tunes, crotch-kicking humor and pointlessly sophomoric plodding vignettes is on full display in Amy Heckerling's Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982); a mindless claptrap dedicated to a certain element of growing up too fast in a culture worshiping sex, drugs and rock and roll. The screenplay by Cameron Crowe (based on his book) tries too hard to be revealing, poignant and funny. It's none of the above. Even in '82 I remember thinking to myself that this wasn't a very good movie about how teenagers really behaved. Unlike director John Hughes, who treats his pubescent ensembles as though they have both minds and hearts to accompany their firm bodies, the characters that populate Heckerling's tableau are mere oversexed cardboard cut outs – extreme walking clich├ęs and stereotypes unrealistically portrayed in gratuitous nudie scenes and salaciously bad taste comedy.
Crowe's script is very loosely concerned with nineteen year old Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is determined to lose her virginity before she turns twenty. Stacy works at the mall food court with her girlfriend, Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates). Linda wastes no time regaling Stacy with her own sexual exploits and teaching her the finer mechanics of filacio using a carrot as her...uh...prop. Stacy meets 26 year old audio specialist and resident mallrat heartthrob, Ron Johnson (D.W. Brown) at her place of work. The two are quickly acquainted. After Stacy sneaks out of her house to meet Ron at a secluded dugout she has her first sexual encounter. It will be her last with Ron, whose M.O. is apparently boinking virgins.
Wallflower movie usher Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) worships Stacy from afar. He confides his feelings to his best friend, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), a bookie/ticket scalper who encourages Mark to ask Stacy out on a date. Meanwhile, Stacy's brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold) is seriously thinking of breaking up with his girlfriend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss) to expand his own sexual horizons. Lisa beats Brad to the punch line, however. Shortly thereafter Brad is fired from his menial fast food job and spends the bulk of his time aimlessly bouncing from one dead end career to the next, disillusioned about his future.
The one character yet to be introduced into this narrative is inexplicably the star of the film; Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a playfully drugged out California surfer dude, totally oblivious to authority figures and completely out of step with all but two of his fellow burnouts (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards). Spicoli incurs the wrath of U.S. history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) by being chronically late to his class and later ordering a cheese pizza during one of Hand’s lessons. Spicoli borrows the snazzy silver sports car of bull-headed varsity jock Charles Jefferson (Forrest Witaker) without his knowledge; then accidentally trashes it. To avoid Charles’ wrath, Spicoli leaves the wreck parked on campus, spray-painting racial slurs all over its smashed frame that, presumably, have been put there by Lincoln High School's rival football team. The rouse works and Charles - fueled with uncontainable rage - demolishes Lincoln's football team on the field during the playoffs.
Eventually, Stacy's awakened sexual appetite migrates to Mike who takes thirty seconds to shoot his wad inside a pool house change room. Short seduction, perhaps, but one that is very long on consequences. Stacy becomes pregnant. She tells Mike about the baby. But he is unable to call in enough markers to pay for the abortion. Instead, he chickens out and leaves Stacy waiting for a ride to the free clinic. Stacy lies to Brad who drives her to the bowling alley - presumably for a date with Mike - before crossing the street to the free clinic where she has the abortion anyway. Brad, however, is no fool. He sees Stacy go into the clinic and thereafter becomes a sympathetic brother. Mark and Mike have a falling out over Stacy that almost leads to blows inside the locker room. Eventually, the chums reconcile and Stacy decides to hook up with Mark. Besides, he really loves her.
Viewed today Fast Times At Ridgemont High is a painfully obtuse exploitation of teenage stereotypes. Sean Penn's drug happy surfer, Forest Witaker's mindless jock, Brian Backer and Rob Romanus' painful preppies, etc. etc. But even these stereotypes are disingenuous. As a teenager I could never relate to these characters as my peer group. They were just too empty headed, soulless and odd. Even more disconcerting is the rather devil-may-care way basic human decencies are disregarded. The one exception is Jeff Spicoli. Although given preciously little to do in the script, there is something in Sean Penn's performance to suggest that beneath his ‘Kowabunga, narly’ passion for surfing and Playboy centerfolds lurks a sad, stunted and somewhat scared little boy yearning to be a man. As a teen I clued into that. But as an adult even Spicoli seems void of good reasons for either my sympathy or respect.
The film treats such serious topics as car accidents, chronic drug abuse, unprotected casual sex and abortion as though they were merely harmless fun; a predictable part of growing up. Granted, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is billed as a comedy. But it really is more of a holdover from the '70s vein in stupid human behavior (a la Animal House 1978). Whenever Crowe's script paints its characters into a narrative corner (which it does a lot) the film relies on a snippet of an 80's pop tune to transition from one scene to the next. So much for continuity. Every studio made teen comedies throughout the 1980s. But unlike some of the more enduring examples in the genre (Teachers, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) Fast Times at Ridgemont High really doesn't hold up, perhaps because it rarely holds the conscience of its own characters in high regard.
Universal has chosen to re-release its Blu-ray, repackaged as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration. The 1080p picture exhibits good colour fidelity (preserving its dated patina of 80s film stock) and a considerable amount of film grain that looks like grain and not digitized grit. Fine details are evident, particularly in close ups. Flesh tones are very natural. Contrast levels are bang on. Age related artefacts are present but extremely rare. This is a fine rendering that will surely not disappoint. The DTS remastering gives the 80s pop songs a bombast that the dialogue portions of the film lack. Dialogue is frontal sounding with little spatial separation, but hey - such were the early Dolby stereo tracks back in the day. Let's just say this is a faithful reproduction of the way the film sounded in theaters then. Extras are limited to an audio commentary and a documentary that looks back at the film and its impact.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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