Film discussion

Risky Business (1983) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

There are a plethora of scenes and images in teen movies that are so iconic they are frequently the first thing we think of when it comes to certain actors or actresses: Matthew Broderick in a street parade singing ‘Twist and Shout’, the cast poster for The Breakfast Club, or the final scene of Sixteen Candles. One that has always been high on that list is Tom Cruise in his underwear and a button-down shirt dancing to Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ in Risky Business.

Nowadays when we think of Tom Cruise, it tends to be of him doing some outrageously dangerous stunt in the increasingly successful Mission: Impossible franchise, and yet before he became more famous for action movies (amongst other things, of course), he was a movie star capable of mixing and matching his genres. But like so many stars who became increasingly famous during the late 80s and early 90s and beyond, his start came from films in which he played a teenager.

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He was amongst that incredible cast that Francis Ford Coppola put together for his adaptation of S.E. Hilton’s The Outsiders, but where so many actors and actresses who became famous playing teens stayed in that genre for a while, and sometimes struggled to break free from the roles that made them famous, Cruise managed to break away pretty quickly, hightailing it to Top Gun and then never looking back, starring in an incredible run of 90s dramas such as A Few Good Men and Jerry Maguire, before finding an unprecedented level of commercial success playing Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible.

Of the plethora of teen films that emerged in the 80s and which are held up as famous examples of the genre, Risky Business stands out as something different, even when being drenched in so many of its tropes, clichés, and problematic elements that are sometimes hard to ignore.

Where so many of these films play out in high school corridors, libraries and classrooms, with school dances and detentions and maybe even an overtly disciplinarian principal amongst the characters, Risky Business plays more like one of the many yuppie nightmare comedies that emerged during the era (Into the Night, After Hours, Something Wild) albeit with teen characters and a sense of ennui about growing up and having to be responsible that puts one in mind of Mike Nichols’ iconic The Graduate.

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The film has a very upper-middle-class setting with which it unleashes its brand of cynical sex comedy that made it feel different even when cinemas were awash with the likes of Porky’s and National Lampoon’s Animal House. Sex itself was the driving force of many of the characters in those films, and while Risky Business is a film that is especially explicit in its sexual scenes, sex is literally the business here.

For anyone who hasn’t seen Risky Business before but has seen the disastrous third season premiere to Dawson’s Creek, the plotting of Paul Brickman’s film will be very familiar: Joel Goodson (Cruise), eager to have sex while his parents are away for a few days leaving him home alone, hires the services of a prostitute, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). An unfortunate incident with his dad’s Porsche, and a missing Steuben Glass Egg belonging to his mother, means that Joel needs money as fast as possible, all the while expecting a visit from the Princeton admissions officer. This being an 80’s teen sex comedy can only mean one thing; turning the house into a brothel to make money and selling the services of the girls in question to Joel’s classmates.

If it all sounds very much of the era, including all the problematic elements that come with it, then you’re not wrong. But there has always been an atmosphere to Risky Business that made it feel different to the likes of Animal House and Porky’s. Yes, sex is something to be profited on and women are there to be used by the male characters for their own sexual gratification, but the film was gorgeously filmed by Paul Brickman with a genuine sense of atmosphere that was only heightened by the music score from Tangerine Dream, which was less feel-good and more drenched in melancholy and 80’s synth atmosphere, and used to brilliant effect in the moody credit sequence.

That isn’t to say that Risky Business gets a free pass from the elements that make it problematic nowadays; like so many teen sex comedies, the film is told very much from a male point of view, although Joel does have rings run around him by Lana, who is more than capable of holding her own. Lana is brilliantly played by De Mornay who imbues the character with dimensions that would otherwise have been ignored altogether, and while the film allows Joel to get away with his antics by the end of the film, there is something darkly funny in watching a character drenched in privilege go through the wringer as much as Cruise’s does here.

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Watching the film in my mid-teens, Risky Business felt different to the output of John Hughes, and even from the likes of Porky’s, with the love scenes between Cruise and De Mornay carrying a charge that was genuinely erotic and impactful. Of course, even this element of the film kind of makes one wince a little, in that it falls into portraying prostitution as something glamourous and glossy, like Pretty Woman, but only seven years earlier.

Released in 1983, Risky Business premiered the same year as All the Right Moves, another teen movie starring Cruise as a high school footballer, and while the latter is well known because it starred Cruise in an early role, Risky Business it the one that still remains famous to this day, not least because of Cruise and the ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ sequence and that megawatt grin being displayed by Cruise while wearing Ray-Bans.

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If there was anything to be learned from the success of the film, it was that you could take characters on the cusp of graduating high school and deal with them in cinematic ways that felt different to the norm. Risky Business might have the drive of a teen sex-farce, but it does at least explore themes and ideas that lie beyond simply getting laid. That factors into a lot of it too, but like The Graduate, there is a dark joy to be had in watching a character navigate the in-between of not quite being an adult, but no longer a child either, where being rebellious and being responsible are lines that you’re constantly stepping on in contradiction to each other.

It showed you could have teen characters in a mainstream Hollywood film that played with the cliches and tropes that you’d expect but aim higher with them, and while Risky Business has aged about as well as you’d expect for a film with this plot, in 1983 it indicated that you didn’t have to aim for the lowest common denominator either.

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