Problematic Movies of the 80s | Risky Business (1983)
I’m not entirely sure why I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 but I’m starting to suspect that it may have had something to do with my love of movies featuring rich, white boys and their capitalistic coming of age stories. I honestly can’t say why these stories were appealing at the time. Perhaps it was that I so wanted to be one of those wealthy dudes on the cusp of their lives, that I had grown up poor and aspired to a paradigm of success dictated by these lives onscreen, that watching them fail then succeed in interesting and funny ways was golden to my budding capitalist brain.
While technically not a comedy (listed on IMDb as a Comedy/Crime/Drama), Tom Cruise in Risky Business was a Big Deal to me as a high school turd in kid’s clothing. The story of Joel Goodsen and his coming of age via prostitution and capitalism fueled my own fantasies (as it likely fueled the fantasies of most guys my age) that I, too, could combine my hormonally challenged state of constant boner with my desire to eschew the trappings of college and expectations and money and win at life. Also, perhaps if not being Joel, maybe being one of his friends invited over to the clean, suburban brothel and getting it on with an older pro who happened to be clean and have all her teeth.
To be honest, after 30-odd years, I couldn’t remember much about the film. I recalled the iconic underwear dance in the living room, the sex on the train scene (sort of) and the Curtis Armstrong (also Booger in Revenge of the Nerds) admonition that sometimes you gotta just say “What the fuck?” as life advice. Vaguely, I remembered something about a Fabergé egg, his dad’s Porsche rolling into a lake and a prostitute party in his parents’ house.
Written and Directed by Paul Brickman
Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, this is a better movie than I remembered. A young Joe Pantoliano as the poorly named pimp, Guido; Bronson Pinchot; and, in perhaps a touch of fate, yet another one of my ’80s film faves set in Chicago. The script is pretty solid and the performances are great. Like Home Alone but with whores and TV dinners. And some excellent cinematography to boot.
The opening scene is Joel telling us about a sexy dream he had involving a naked stranger showering in his neighbor’s house only to reveal that he is going to flunk his college exams and ruin his life by focusing on sex instead of his grades. Joel’s fear of failing life is what motivates everything that follows and thus isn’t all that different from what most teenagers grapple with. For that matter, it isn’t that different than we adults feel on a routine basis which is why there’s so much fucking therapy out there.
Joel’s parents split to go deal with an ailing aunt, he drinks Chivas Regal and Coke with an uncooked TV dinner. He dances. He struggles to be cool (aka sexually experienced) with his high school buddies who somehow smoke cigars while playing poker. He is then goaded into calling a prostitute via the classified ads by his seemingly all-wise friend with the Jew-fro and we’re off to the races.
Lana and her co-workers like servicing these well-heeled high school kids — instead of feeling entitled to the sex they’re paying for, they’re grateful. They’re clean. And, in the case of Joel, Lana manipulates him as aggressively as Booger did but to more specific and nefarious ends.
Problematic Moments & Themes
Aside from the bizarre idea that prostitutes in the ’80s in Chicago were all young, white, pretty, as well as looking a bit like all the women in a Jane Fonda aerobics video, the presentation of feminism is more solid than one would expect from the premise. Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) is the master of her destiny despite initially running from Guido and is the instigator of all that unfolds. Joel does just about everything to get her out of his house and avoid the inevitable turn my parents’ home into a cathouse plot. She leads him by the head of his penis down each twist and turn. Far from the undertow of masculine violence, these boys are not rapey or abusers. They’re teenage boys who are horny and mostly really awkward about it.
Again, as it seems to be a common thread in the films of my youth, there is only one black character, Bruce A. Young playing a crossdresser pro named Jackie. His/her appearance isn’t transphobic as Jackie remains completely in control of the situation.
The only aspect, in fact, of the entire film I found to be annoying in that 2018 whiny ass social justice sort of way is the fact that this is about a really rich white kid starting up a whorehouse in the suburbs and, not only does he get away with it, he gets accepted into Princeton despite have a 3.14 grade point average and sub-par SAT scores. He pimps out his family home, dumps his father’s Porsche in Lake Michigan, gets suspended for five days and suffers virtually no consequence for any of it.
I mean, sure, to inject a certain social justice in the margins and have him go to prison or have Lana get pistol-whipped would perhaps be more realistic it certainly wouldn’t then have the “Comedy” part of it.
Did it Hold Up?
For me, yes. It’s a remarkably beautiful tryptic through 1980s Chicago, the unveiling of the mega-star that became Tom Cruise (say what you want about his insane religious beliefs, I love the guy to this day as a movie star), and, while a picture of wealthy white privilege at work, still a solid story told well.
Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it
Risky Business gets a 3
Next Up: Back to School (1986)
NOTE: Is it any wonder that Kavanaugh felt entitled as a teen? These movies scream that he is destined for success and can get away with anything.