Risky Business (1983): Paul Brickman’s Comedy, Starring Tom Cruise

At first glance, Risky Business felt just like another youth high-school comedy about scoring and getting laid, much in the vein of “The Last American Virgin” or “Private Lessons,” minor coming-of-age items about 1980s teenagers and their first sexual encounters.

 

  • Tom Cruise holding a frisbee: Rebecca De Mornay (left) and Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."

No one could have predicted in the summer of 1983 that Paul Brickman’s debut comedy, “Risky Business,” would be a smash hit (0ne of the year’s top grossing films) or that it would produce a new mega-star, Tom Cruise.

But upon watching this well-executed movie, audiences became aware of narrative and stylish innovations that elevated it above the routine genre item. For some critics, “Risky Business” was an update of James Dean’s star vehicle, the seminal rebellious misunderstood youth film, “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), which also stood way above the routine 1950s juvenile-delinquent flicks.

A zeitgeist film, “Risky Buisness,” reflected Reagonomics in the same way that “Flashdance” (also released in 1983) and “Top Gun” (1986) did. That picture was to the 1980s what “Rebel Without a Cause” was to the 1950s, “The Graduate” to the 1960s, and “Saturday Night Fever” to the 1970s, a movie that conveyed the socio-cultural temperature of its times, positing a “misunderstood” youth vis–vis the adult world.

The yarn’s handsome hero is Joel Goodsen (Tom Cruise), an affluent, spoiled but sex-starved teen growing up in a Chicago’s upscale. For the smart and ambitious Joel, making money and living well is everything. If in “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock represented a generation of idealistic youngsters when he refused to take an adult’s advice to get into “plastics,” that’s precisely the kind of advice Joel is eager forbut only initially.

A child of the 1980s, Joel and is high school friends Miles (Curtis Armstrong), Barry (Bronson Pinchot) and Glenn (Raphael Sbarge) hang out at a McDonald’s, consuming junk food while casually discussing which college’s business school is likely to land them the highest-paying job when they graduate in four years.

Joel wants to get into Harvard, not because of the latter’s educational standards, but because he knows that a degree from America’s premiere school (truly Ivy League) would translate into money and lucrative lifestyle.

Rather conveniently, Joel’s parents take off on a vacation, leaving him alone to study for the college boards. Joel amuses himself in the evenings by dancing around the house in just T-shirt and underwear, grabbing a candlestick and pretending it’s a microphone as he rocks and rolls until he exhausts himself to boredom. Reportedly, Cruise and Brickman improvised that classic moment, which was not in the script, while shooting. It became the film’s most powerful image and the scene people still stalk about it.

Joel then calls a hooker out-service he finds listed in the classified ads. Vicki, the black girl who answers Joel’s call, is a bit much for him. Realizing how inexperienced Joel is, she sends over Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), a knowledgeable whore who nevertheless has the appearance of an angel.

Joel is having a little adventure–until Lana refuses to leave the morning after. He’s forced to go to high school while Lana stays at his house. When Joel finally gets Lana to leave, she takes along his mother’s beloved crystal egg. Undeterred, Joel pursues her to retrieve it, only to be confronted by Lana’s killer pimp, Guido.

One thing leads to another, and before long, Lana and her friends move into Joel’s house, which he operates as a brothel for his upscale buddies. When a college recruiter (Richard Masur) shows up, he’s so taken with Joel’s innovative ideas and resourceful entrepreneurship that he immediately accepts Joel into Harvard’s prestigious business school.

Paul Brickman, who had written the witty screenplay for Jonathan Demme’s “Citizens Band” (aka “Handle With Care”) makes a splashy directing debut here.

“Risky Business” abounds with fun and memorable moments, such as the scene in which Joel’s father’s Porsche drifts downhill toward Lake Michigan, while Joel makes ever more desperate and futile efforts to prevent it. Another striking sequence has Joel and Lana making love in a subway, which for some was one of the most intensely erotic images in American movies, even if it’s suggestive rather than graphic. Though there’s no nudity, many viewers recall seeing Cruise and De Mornay naked (a wishful thinking).

Cruise was immediately catapulted to stardom with his performance, which unsparingly satirized the greed of Joel–and the Reagan-era in general; Oliver Stone would satirize it in a serious mode in “Wall Street” in 1987. But Brickman makes him sympathetic enough for the audience to care cared about.

Cruise’s odyssey from a virginal innocent to a cynical, thoroughly corrupted yet happy to be a winner by playing dirty, is a sight to behold. Three years later, with the release of Tony Scott “Top Gun,” also a Reagan-like movie (remember the “best of the best”), Cruise will become America’s top movie star and will occupy that position for the next two decades.

While “Risky Business” is devoid of overt polemics or ideology, it did suggest that in the 1980s, almost everyone was in one way or another a whore, the only difference between Joel and Lana being her honesty about her profession. That cynical assessment was presented stylishly and winningly by Brickman.

Credits

Warner (Geffen Company Release)

Produced by Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch.
Written and directed by Paul Brickman.
Camera: Reynold Villalobos and Bruce Surtees.
Editor: Richard Chew

Running time: 98 minutes
MPAA Rating: R.

Cast

Joel Goodsen (Tom Cruise)
Lana (Rebecca De Mornay)
Miles (Curtis Armstrong)
Barry (Bronson Pinchot)
Glenn (Raphael Sbarge)
Guido (Joe Pantoliano)
Joel’s Father (Nicholas Pryor)
Joel’s Mother (Janet Carroll)
Vicki (Shera Danese)
Rutherford (Richard Masur)