#17) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

#17) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

OR “The Teen’s Gambit”

Directed by Amy Heckerling

Written by Cameron Crowe. Based on his book.

Class of 2005

This is a revised and expanded version of a previous post, which you can read here.

The Plot: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a year in the life of six students at a southern California high school. Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is starting to date and learn about sex, getting most of her information from the more experienced Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates). Stacy’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) tries to hold down unfulfilling weekend jobs to pay off his car. Awkward Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) wants to ask out Stacy, getting advice from ladies’ man Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). And stoner extraordinaire Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) stumbles through the year, clashing with U.S. History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). All of this featuring a kick-ass ’80s soundtrack and a cast on the verge of superstardom.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a]mong the best teen comedies” and a “cultural icon”, praising the “hilarious performances” by “an appealing mix of soon-to-be-famous young talent”, most notably Sean Penn.

But Does It Really?:  Maybe I was in a bad mood last time, but I really enjoyed “Fast Times” this go-round. Sure, it’s a dirty teen movie, but it’s a well made dirty teen movie that’s both truthful and funny (I laughed out loud quite a bit). “Fast Times” is an important movie for a specific generation of American youth, but I suspect the John Hughes oeuvre has eclipsed this movie in our national depiction of ’80s teenagers. Regardless,”Fast Times” is an iconic slice of ’80s pop culture that is worth remembering.

Shout Outs: Damone hums a bit of the “Jaws” theme while swimming in Stacy’s pool.

Everybody Gets One: After a five-year stint as Rolling Stone‘s youngest contributor, Cameron Crowe had the idea to pose as a high school senior and write a book about it. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story” came out in 1981, and the film rights were immediately snatched up by Universal. The screenplay was selected by Amy Heckerling, a recent AFI graduate, to be her feature film debut. Among the cast members making their sole NFR appearance are Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver (via archival footage).

Wow, That’s Dated: Everything. This movie highlights when America was firmly in the mall-trekking, Rubiks Cube-solving ’80s, with a few feathery hair remnants of the late ’70s. And I will agree with a piece of graffiti at The Point: Disco sucks.

Title Track: Two songs titled “Fast Times” appear on the soundtrack: one by Billy Squier and one by Sammy Hagar.

Other notes 

  • First off, shoutout to casting director Don Phillips for finding a cast of new talent that includes three future Oscar winners and one nominee, among countless other accolades between them.
  • Sean Penn in this movie is like Steve McQueen in “Magnificent Seven“: used sparingly for maximum effect. Watching Penn channel his acting intensity into a surfer dude is a delight.
  • Blink and you’ll miss Nicolas Cage (billed here as Nicolas Coppola) as one of Brad’s buds. Also appearing on the sidelines are Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz as Jeff’s stoner pals (I didn’t recognize the former with hair).
  • You’d think going from Broadway and “The Apartment” to a raunchy teen comedy would be slumming, but Ray Walston was delighted to take on a role that would end his typecasting from “My Favorite Martian“. This is also a reminder to myself that Ray Walston and Hume Cronyn are two different people.
  • This movie follows the film cliché of classes that are only 10 minutes, and everyone gets saved by the bell.
  • Hey, another “Die Hard” Not-Christmas movie, complete with Darlene Love!
  • Every line from Judge Reinhold is pure comedy gold, top among them: “Mister, if you don’t shut up I’m gonna kick one hundred percent of your ass!”
  • The Brad subplot is a reminder of how awful customer service is, and how much nicer rude customers become once the manager shows up.
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer are both great in this, especially when conveying the awkwardness of a first date. I got intense second-hand embarrassment just watching them.
  • Obviously, Amy Heckerling does not represent all women, but it is interesting to watch how a teen sex comedy differs when directed by a woman. There’s still plenty of toxic masculinity and objectifying of women, but you get a far more balanced perspective from the female characters.
  • I refuse to dwell on it, but I am obligated to mention the iconic fantasy sequence where Phoebe Cates takes off her binki top. Move along, you pervs.
  • The late great Taylor Negron shows up as the pizza delivery guy. Weirdly, he is credited at the end as playing “Himself”. This scene has the perfect button of Spicoli’s wounded puppy look as Mr. Hand gives away his pizza.
  • I forgot how funny the Stacy/Damone sex scene is. Originally, both actors were filmed showing full-frontal nudity, but the threat of an X rating led to a few strategic trims, much to the dismay of Heckerling and Leigh (Robert Romanus was allegedly relieved by the cut).
  • All the characters in this movie would do better dealing with their issues if they had parents. Seriously, everyone’s parents are “out of town” in this movie. Go home and hug your kids!
  • No movie that ends with a funny epilogue explaining what happened to everyone and/or an Oingo Boingo song over the credits can be completely bad.

Legacy 

  • Lacking faith in the movie, Universal intended to give “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” a limited release, then banish it to cable. The film, however, became a sleeper hit thanks to strong word of mouth, with its eventual home video and TV appearances making “Fast Times” a cult classic.
  • Amy Heckerling would go on to direct “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”, “Look Who’s Talking”, and another classic slice of teen life, “Clueless”.
  • The success of “Fast Times” encouraged Cameron Crowe to pursue his own film career, directing such hits as “Say Anything…”, “Jerry Maguire”, and “Almost Famous”.
  • “Fast Times” got a TV spin-off series, with Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprising their roles from the film. Heavily sanitized for network television, “Fast Times” aired on CBS for seven episodes in the spring of 1986.
  • References to the film nowadays are relegated to the title, Sean Penn’s performance, and parodies of Phoebe Cates’ pool scene.
  • Among the many Zoom gatherings that occurred during the 2020 COVID shutdown was a reading of the “Fast Times” screenplay by an all-star cast including Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts. The only thing more entertaining than Shia LeBeouf’s interpretation of Spicoli is Sean Penn’s amused reaction to it.

Listen to This: In the original post I mentioned that none of the artists on the “Fast Times” soundtrack had made the National Recording Registry. Four years later, the NRR has added Jackson Browne (“Late for the Sky“), Don Henley (“Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)“, Stevie Nicks (“Rumours“), and Donna Summer (“I Fee Love“). Still absent are The Go-Gos, Jimmy Buffet, Led Zeppelin, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty.

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