Drivers’ Cinema: Risky Business (1983)
Written and directed by Paul Brickman in an auspicious directorial debut, Risky Business still seems like the ultimate in ’80s teen wish fulfillment. The story follows Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise in one of his earliest, career-building roles), a teenager who is left home alone when his parents go out of town for a few days. Joel is a solid, but not spectacular student looking to spend his time wisely during his senior year of high school, and hopefully get into a good university. His life spirals out of control when he decides to follow his friend’s, Miles (Curtis Armstrong who went on to star in Revenge of the Nerds), advice to cut loose, and explore some of his pent-up desires.
With his parents safely dropped off at the airport, the pair take Joel’s father’s Porsche 928 out for a joyride (I love, love how the soundtrack cuts out and restarts when Joel stalls the car!), and cruise the streets of the Chicago suburbs. They look for girls to pick up and do a bit of street racing. The 928 crushes the local automotive competition because of course “There is no substitute.” But, in the words of Bill Rutherford, the Princeton alumni who interviews Joel later on, “You’ve done a lot of solid work here, but it’s just not Ivy League, now is it?” Re-evaluating his priorities and after a hilarious referral from a black, transvestite prostitute, Joel calls Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), a young call girl barely older than he is, and they spend the night together. When morning comes, Joel doesn’t have enough money to pay Lana for her services, and that’s when Joel starts to get in over his head. He gets robbed, chased by Guido “the Killer Pimp” (Joe Pantoliano), and later drowns his father’s Porsche in Lake Michigan. It is at this point that Joel gets into a truly “risky business.”
Since this is Petrolicious, we must say more about the car. The movie has one very memorable chase sequence between Joel (with Lana and a car-sick Miles in tow) in the 928 and Guido in his Cadillac. In real life, I think the 928 would have smoked the big Cadillac in a straight up speed contest. At least they show how the cars handle faithfully: the 928 cornering as though on rails and the big Cadillac wallowing in the turns, and getting banged up in the process. Those with an eagle eye will spot that several different Porsches were used during filming, and they don’t always match up. It is a 928 for sure though, but the “hero car” looks to be a 1979 model. I have to say every time I watch this film, I immediately hit the internet in search of a cheap 928 to scratch that itch.
The soundtrack also deserves a mention as the score by Tangerine Dream is a perfect fit to many of the dreamlike sequences in the film, and the soundtrack boasts songs from the likes of Jeff Beck, Bob Seger, Muddy Waters, and of course Phil Collins, whose song “In the Air Tonight” perfectly complements Joel and Lana’s famous train ride through Chicago.
Risky Business is more than a teen comedy, because lying just beneath the surface is a layered portrait of the American teenage male with all his hopes, aspirations, and dreams colored by an undercurrent of materialism, isolation, and judgement. The things that matter are the kind of car his father lets him drive, his clothes, and whether he can get laid. Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Joel at the beginning of the film is that of a conformist, just going along with the current, like a lemming. Ironically, Tom Cruise’s Joel finds fulfillment when he goes against everything that has been ingrained in him since birth by his parents, turning against his parents’ and society’s values, ultimately realizing his dream (at least in the short term).
The movie speaks to something we can all take to heart. Sometimes we all need to take a risk, take a chance. Sometimes you just have to say “What the f**k?”
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