Monday, April 18, 2011

Revisiting Risky Business

When I first saw Risky Business I was too young to catch all the jokes or understand all the events. It was on cable and I was sneaking bits of it while the grownups were distracted, though I doubt they would have cared. A few years and several hormones later, I watched it in full and followed the story with great, um, interest. It was exciting. A nice kid from the Chicago suburbs sleeps with a beautiful hooker, throws a wild party, and has the time of his life. That was all I needed in a movie.

I am tempted to attribute college to the opening of a more crucial eye, but who am I kidding? I’m no smarter than I was at fifteen, in some regards, and even when it comes to movies I’m a hell of a lot more forgiving than the average grad school asshole. I love horror films, no matter how stupid. I’m always ready to drive down nostalgia lane in the form of Weird Science, Back to School, Trading Places, Caddyshack, or most other goofy ‘80s movies. So when I saw Risky Business on cable this weekend, I, along with the lovely Cassandra, decided to give it a go.

What I was expecting was the same wild ride through the north shore and the city that I enjoyed as a kid. And yes, some of that was there, but behind the whole “what the fuck” philosophy resided bigger questions of Reagan era greed and avarice that I found compelling.

When one thinks of the quintessential 1980s send up of rampant capitalism they might name check Wall Street. Sure, Michael Douglas’s “greed is good” speech works, but the film—like all by Oliver Stone—handles the subject matter the way a sixth grader would. The bad guys are clearly bad, thus deserving of what they get, and the good guys are pure and noble who may succumb briefly to temptation but always find their moral center and do the right thing. In Wall Street, Michael Douglas is unquestionably bad—charismatic but clearly evil—and Charlie Sheen is the moral center. (Talk about irony!)

No, Wall Street is not the great cinematic indictment of the decadent 1980s; that would be Risky Business. Consider the story: Joel, played by Tom Cruise in the only film I have ever liked him in, is a typical north shore kid. He has well to do parents with boring, well to do tastes. His father sets the equalizer on his stereo to boring perfection to properly enjoy his classical music. Joel’s first act of rebellion when his parents leave is to fuck with the settings and blast “Old Time Rock and Roll.” So the characters are set: stuffy adults and their rebellious kids who feel a million miles away from them even in the same house. His father’s meticulous nature is symbolized by the stereo, but his mom is all about the goddamn egg—that obvious symbol of innocence and shelter that, of course, is risked, stolen, bartered over, and, eventually, cracked by the film’s conclusion. Joel’s adventures cause a crack in the egg and usher in the end of his naïve, sheltered life. Yay for metaphors!

Back to the story. Joel, like most teens, is horny as fuck and clueless on how to change all of that. His folks are gone, so his seemingly worldly pal calls a hooker. The hooker, a tranny, hips him to the sort of hooker he might actually want to fuck, which he does. Naïve and stupid, Joel has not the cash to pay her in the morning. So what can we pull from this? That a north shore spoiled son of well to do parents is that stupid? Has he been so insulated in his life that he failed to understand that this hooker might require money for her services? That Porsche in the garage didn’t come free either, Joel. Shit costs money, but to a privileged son of well to do parents, the idea often seems foreign. They just expect things.

That the hooker might rip him off while he goes to the bank to cash in a bond is also a thought absent from Joel’s head. His naiveté is hilarious. These ridiculous plot machinations seem implausible, but I want to suggest that the makers of this film were using them to raise larger social-political questions about class. Lana, the hooker, asks Joel not to judge her while he sits on his father’s $40,000 car (is that what a Porsche cost in 1984?). Though she aspires to wealth, her story is rooted in a starker reality. She’s probably not a hooker because she likes the life. There’s big differences between the two primary characters and while these disparities are hardly new or even all that interesting, they are used to further skewer a society where the biggest aspiration is to make money and the mere suggestion—half hearted though it may be—of helping people results in laughter and condemnation. This is the Reagan era.

Lana is honest. She is in it for the cash and she’ll screw anyone to get it—literally and figuratively. Joel is blind. He is easily seduced into the life of easy money, power, sex, and drugs because this is the life he was making for himself all along. He and his friends are budding capitalists, future CEOs eager to get rich regardless of the cost to others. They care nothing for the world at large. And why should they? They can’t see it from the position of their north shore homes. They’ll never see it from the corner offices either.

Joel’s adventure seems funny enough, and no one really gets hurt, right? Sure. He has one more night with Lana at the end, and while it’s all a little ambiguous this is hardly the guy-gets-girl, ride off into the sunset kind of ending. There’s a bit more going on. Joel loses all the money but he gets into Princeton. It is not his grades and achievements that get him in the Ivy League, but the fact that he got the admissions officer laid. Clearly his efforts at school were a means to an end, as seen in his aggressive behavior toward the school nurse (“I’ve busted my butt in this shithole!”). Also evident in this scene is his sense of entitlement. Of course he ought to get a break, even though he missed class and broke the rules. You see, it was not his fault. A hooker accidently knocked the gear of his father’s Porsche, which sent it into Lake Michigan, so he had to get it to fixed and miss class, so, you see, it’s not his fault. Not taking responsibility for his actions (his father told him not to touch the car, he called the hooker, he got high with her), Joel expects special treatment. Why? Because he is the son of well to do parents living in the north shore and he will, of course, go on to be rich and powerful himself. Why? Well, because it is predetermined. Why shouldn’t he get a break?

It is this entitlement that Joel and his pals feel. It will stay with them as they go to Ivy League schools and climb corporate ladders. It will inform their actions. It will justify their lies, adulteries, and petty grievances against a world that should know better than to fuck with them. These are the cogs in the great wheel of laissez-faire capitalism.

Forgive me for seeming didactic or for overanalyzing a somewhat forgotten film, but I had to get all that off my chest. Stay tuned for more poetry and less pseudo intellectualism.