Warner Bros. // 1983 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 2nd, 2008
Meet the model son who's been good too long.
"I don't believe this! I've got a trig midterm tomorrow, and I'm being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp!"
Joel (Tom Cruise, Rain Man) is an ordinary American teenager attempting to survive that terrifying era known as "the early 1980s." Joel makes good grades in school, has a few friends, and has never had sex. He's widely considered "a good kid," a guy whose idea of "bad behavior" mostly consists of borrowing his father's car. When Joel's parents go out of town for a while, our young protagonist is thrilled to have the house all to himself. He has no idea what is in store for him.
One day, Joel is hanging out with Miles (Curtis Armstrong, Akeelah and the Bee), a real tool who is essentially Joel's best friend. As a practical joke, Miles pretends to be Joel on the phone and requests a call girl. In a roundabout sort of way, Joel does indeed end up with a call girl (Rebecca De Mornay, John From Cincinatti) eventually. Things are great when Joel and the call girl are doing the things that call girls do with guys like Joel, but after that, things take a nasty turn. Stolen property, pimps, damaged vehicles, and problematic school situations are just some of the things Joel is forced to deal with over the next few days. Can he find some sort of normality again before his parents get home?
So here's the first question: Is Risky Business just another sex comedy? No, it isn't. Is it a timeless classic on the level of The Graduate (the film it is most frequently compared to)? No, it isn't. But it is a solid film, worthy of being compared with the similar works of directors like Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. It is also responsible for making a star of actor Tom Cruise, who was just another up-and-comer before this film. Warner Brothers has put together a pretty solid Blu-ray release of the film in honor of it's 25th Anniversary, and I enjoyed going back and taking another look at it.
The first thing that comes to mind when watching Risky Business is that it is very much a product of the 1980s. Every single thing about the film seems to stand up and scream, "Hey, it's 1983!" which might have been a liability, if the film weren't attempting to tell a story about a very specific sort of person living in a very specific time period. The vibe of the Reagan era hangs over this film like an electronic cloud, from the themes of entrepreneurial capitalism to the swishy-synth Tangerine Dream score. Here is a story about a young man who has been pre-programmed by his parents, teachers and friends to have a certain type of goal and a certain type of dream. There's something inside Joel that seeks something deeper and more meaningful.
There is a famous scene in the film that takes place just after Joel's parents have left. Joel cranks up his father's stereo, pops on Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll," and dances in ecstasy around the living room. Now I wonder, why would producer John Avnet and writer/director Paul Brickman use that song? At the time, it wasn't one of Seger's biggest hits. It barely made it into the top 30 when it was released. It certainly didn't fit in with the musical palette that defines the era (and for that matter, the rest of the film), using real instruments rather than a wash of electronics. I think it's a reflection of what Joel yearns for inside; a buried desire to actually feel and experience life rather than merely succeeding at it on paper. Something real and lasting rather than something artificial and trendy.
He gets that and a whole lot more in Risky Business, which at times gets so dark and absurd that it starts to foreshadow Scorsese's overlooked After Hours. The elements of a traditional sex comedy are here, as are the elements of a "weekend gone bad" comedy (two genres that meet up and ravish each other quite frequently). However, Brickman handles everything with exceptional subtlety and intelligence, choosing to convey many things either silently or with a minimal amount of words. When I think of strong screenplays, I confess that chatty affairs typically come to mind first; something like All About Eve or House of Games. Here we have a film in which more is conveyed by what characters (particularly Cruise and De Mornay) don't say.
The hi-def transfer is actually somewhat disappointing. The film is 25 years old, and it absolutely looks its age here. The picture is a rather grainy and washed out at times, and there is very little sharp detail on display. I'm also a little unsatisfied with the sound. There needs to be a little more balance between the soft dialogue and the immersive soundtrack. Also unusual, the sound effects and dialogue sound a little worn out, but most of the music is sharp and clear. There's just something a little odd about the whole audio experience, even if it isn't definably unsatisfactory.
A decent selection of special features are also included here. First up is a video commentary with Tom Cruise, Jon Avnet, and Paul Brickman (the audio-only version is included on the DVD). It's a pretty engaging track, as all three seem to have a great deal of fondness for the film. This is supplemented nicely by a half-hour documentary which features interviews with these three in addition to Rebecca De Mornay, critic Peter Travers, director Cameron Crowe, and many others. We also get the original screen tests featuring Cruise and De Mornay, plus an alternate ending that Brickman wished had been included in the final cut.
Yes, Risky Business has aged quite a lot over the past 25 years, but it still holds up well enough to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. Thanks to the folks at Warner Brothers for giving this one another look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Video Commentary
* Screen Tests
* Director's Cut of Final Scene