Like the teenage protagonist Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in RISKY BUSINESS (1983), I had high school friends who had good grades and were outstanding members of our high school class who would get a little risky when their parents went away for the week. One friend did doughnuts (or cookies as some have debated me) in our high school parking lot with his parent's Volvo before an Oregon Sheriff put a stop to his expression of freedom. Another of my buddies took his Dad's Porsche 944 out with another friend for a spin before either of them had their driver's licenses (thankfully they did not put the Porsche into the Willamette River as Joel Goodson does with his father's Porsche in Chicago). And I recall an epic party with lots of teenagers at a barn behind yet another friend's house when his parents were gone.
RISKY BUSINESS came out at the perfect time in my life, right as high school was ending and college was about to begin, similar to Joel Goodson's senior year. I could relate to Joel's sexual frustration (what teenage boy couldn't) but even more so, I related to his fear of taking chances and failure. RISKY BUSINESS was a smart, dark teen comedy that was the polar opposite of raunchy teen comedies like MEATBALLS (1981) or PORKY'S (1982). Set in the same Chicago suburbs as John Hughes' comedies SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984) or THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), RISKY BUSINESS was a high school world familiar to me. Preppy kids with visions of good schools and making money. Written and directed by first time director Paul Brickman, RISKY BUSINESS would be Brickman's one hit wonder. Brickman shows remarkable confidence in his directorial debut and it's a shame his directing career didn't flourish (don't fret, he's still writing screenplays like Clint Eastwood's 1999 TRUE CRIME).
Joel Goodson's (Tom Cruise) world in RISKY BUSINESS is Glencoe, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Joel is a typical senior in high school, playing poker with his buddies Barry (Bronson Pinchot), Miles (Curtis Armstrong), and Glenn (Raphael Sbarge) and trying to get good grades so he can get into an Ivy League college. Joel's parents (Nicholas Pryor and Janet Carroll) are going out of town for the week leaving the house all to Joel. Miles challenges Joel to take some chances with his parents away but Joel is not a risk taker. He doesn't want to jeopardize his future. Joel's world will turn upside down when Miles prank calls a sex ad, pretending to be Joel and giving out his address.
Miles prank call brings Jackie, a black transvestite (Bruce A. Young) the size of a linebacker to Joel's front door that night. Joel explains it's all a mistake and pays for Jackie's fare back. Before leaving, Jackie gives Joel the phone number for Lana. Lana is "what every white boy on the lake wants," Jackie tells him. The next evening, Joel does call Lana. Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) is a call girl, mysterious and sexy. Joel loses his innocence that night to Lana but that's only the beginning. Joel doesn't have enough money to pay Lana her $300 fee. When he returns from the bank with cash to pay her, Lana is missing and so is Joel's mother's prized glass egg.
So begins Joel's odyssey to reacquire the glass egg and return his life back to normal. Joel will be chased by Lana's pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano). Joel will accidentally put his father's Porsche into Lake Michigan. After Joel is suspended from school for threatening the school nurse for giving him a tardy slip and failing two exams, Joel teams up with Lana and her roommate Vicki (Shera Danese) to make some quick cash so he can repair his father's car.
With Barry handling the money, Joel doing the marketing, and Lana supplying the working girls, Joel turns his parent's house into a brothel for one night only, entertaining Joel's high school classmates (and even cousins from Skokie). Among the visitors is Bill Rutherford (Richard Masur), a recruiter from Princeton that Joel's father invited to interview Joel about attending the Ivy League school. The night is a success as Joel raises $8,000 dollars. He's able to get his father's Porsche out of the shop but when he returns home with the car, he discovers Guido has stolen all of his parent's belongings. Joel has only two hours to get all the furniture and glass egg back before his parents return from their vacation.
So why do I love RISKY BUSINESS? First and foremost, it has some of the best lines and dialogue in any coming of age film. These examples may not mean much to you (unless you've seen the film), but I find them clever and funny.
- "Who's the U-boat Commander?" asks the Auto Dealer as water and fish pour of Joel's father's 928 Porsche.
- "I don't think you should mix centuries," says Barry as they try to put Joel's mother's china back on its shelves.
- "I've got a Trig mid-term tomorrow and I'm being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp," groans Miles after Guido chases Joel, Lana, and himself.
- "Did you pack my mace?" Joel's mother asks Joel's father before they depart for their trip.
RISKY BUSINESS always reminded me of another influential film for me when I was in high school. Mike Nichols' THE GRADUATE (1967) starring Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock. Both films have young, naive protagonists (high school senior Goodson; college graduate Braddock) who face uncertain futures (will Goodson have good enough grades to go to Princeton?; what will Braddock do now that he's done with college? "Plastics" as one of Braddock's father's friends suggests?). Both will get involved in sexual politics (Goodson with the call girl Lana; Braddock with his father's best friend's wife Mrs. Robinson). Both RISKY BUSINESS and THE GRADUATE would catapult young actors Cruise and Hoffman to stardom. Both films used eclectic musical choices that take the film to a higher level (Tangerine Dream for RISKY; Simon and Garfunkle for GRADUATE). And both films capture feelings I had both in high school, college, and post college. "Can I make it to college?", "will I survive college", and "what do I do after college?" Hoffman and Cruise would even make an Oscar winning film together in RAIN MAN (1988).
At first glance RISKY BUSINESS could be mistaken for one of John Hughes teenage films only it's darker than anything Hughes could have made (although THE BREAKFAST CLUB hints at some dark moments). It's a class clash as the rich kids (Joel, Barry, Miles) from the lake collide with the tough reality from the city (Lana, Guido, Vicki). Lana is not the hooker with a heart of gold. Lana has had a tough life, hit on by her step father. She's a blessing and a curse to Joel. She teaches Joel more than just sex, about life and free enterprise. But she also steals the egg and she may have double-crossed Joel after their business venture. After all, she owes Guido some money as well. Brickman's cinematographers (Reynaldo Villalobos and Bruce Surtees) shoot the film to match the movie's darker tone. Surtees shot many of Clint Eastwood's movies (DIRTY HARRY, PALE RIDER) and Eastwood favored low lighting too. Joel's suburban house, even his room is bathed in shadows . The suburbs aren't as bright and happy as we think. The city night scenes crackle in neon and blurry lights.
Music can make or break a film. Much of my fondness for RISKY BUSINESS is due to the German group Tangerine Dream's hypnotic electronic score. Yes, Brickman uses some popular music at key moments (Bob Seger, Phil Collins, Muddy Waters) but he goes a different route with Tangerine Dream, music that's edgier and mournful, acknowledging Joel's transition from teenager to young adult, from high school to college.
Like Hughes early films, RISKY BUSINESS is set in the Chicago area. But director/writer Brickman's young characters don't wear the latest fashion trends like a Hughes character would (although Joel wearing Rayban sunglasses is the one exception). Brickman's teenage characters are preppy not alternative or Goth or punk. Hughes will borrow slightly from RISKY BUSINESS with another Hughes Chicago teenage comedy FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986). But instead of Ferris's parents going away, Ferris just skips school for the day with his two friends Sloane (Mia Sara) and Cameron (Alan Ruck). Cameron will also wreck his father's car echoing Joel's predicament with his father's Porsche. Even HOME ALONE (1990) written by Hughes, uses the RISKY BUSINESS idea of being alone but makes it more juvenile as Kevin McCallister's (Macaulay Culkin) parents accidentally leave him home alone when they go off to Paris.
As many times as I have seen RISKY BUSINESS, I never caught on to the metaphor in Joel Goodson's name until now. Joel is a good son. He rakes the leaves up in his yard and drives his parents to the airport. He's a member of the Future Enterprisers club. He gets good grades and dreams of going to Princeton, his father's alma mater. He thinks about sex with the babysitter but hasn't acted upon it. But when Joel's buddy Miles offers his philosophy of "What the Fuck" with Joel's parents gone for a week and the house to himself, the good son goes off course. He's got freedom now. He dances in his underwear around the house. He has sex with a call girl. He loses his mother's glass egg to said call girl. He gets chased by Guido the Killer Pimp. He puts his father's Porsche into Lake Michigan. Joel becomes a pimp for a night, providing sex to all his horny high school classmates. It turns out Miles was just bullshitting Joel when he gave the advice "What the Fuck." Miles didn't think Joel would take him seriously. Joel both benefits and pays the price for believing in "What the Fuck."
RISKY BUSINESS is the one and only time you will see Tom Cruise play the closest thing to a nerd. A good looking straight arrow. I was a huge Tom Cruise fan after RISKY BUSINESS. I loved how he alternated between awkwardness and confidence as Joel, the epitome of a teenager. Cruise was on the brink of super stardom. He played another high school character in the football film ALL THE RIGHT MOVES (1983) then a young hero in Ridley Scott's fantasy LEGEND (1985). I was still on the Cruise band wagon until Cruise's next film, Tony Scott's TOP GUN (1986) which would introduce us to the future prototype character for Cruise off and on going forward: the intense, selfish, cocky hero who undergoes a transformation to good, caring person. I fell off the Cruise bandwagon with TOP GUN. RISKY BUSINESS will always be his defining performance for me.
Writer/Director Brickman casting is impeccable. Besides selecting a relative unknown Cruise to play the lead Joel, he smartly surrounds Cruise with smart, less attractive geeks like Bronson Pinchot as Barry and Curtis Armstrong as Miles. Pinchot and Armstrong steal every scene they're in. Both are so convincing and dead on that they would be typecast for awhile with Armstrong following up RISKY BUSINESS by playing Booger Dawson, a more disgusting nerd in THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984). Pinchot would have a nice run as the Greek geek Balki on the ABC TV show PERFECT STRANGERS.
The wild card in RISKY BUSINESS'S success is Rebecca De Mornay. Like her fellow actors Bronson Pinchot and Curtis Armstrong, RISKY BUSINESS was De Mornay's first film role (besides a walk on in Francis Coppola's ONE FOR THE HEART). Lana is the key to the film. If the audience isn't attracted to Lana like Joel is, the film's core is gone. De Mornay's Lana can be sexy when fulfilling Joel's fantasies but in reality she's hard-edged and guarded, not willing to easily reveal her vulnerability. She's not Hollywood's version of a prostitute with the heart of gold. Her heart has been bruised. De Mornay's cold demeanor would get her cast as icy seductresses in other films like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1993). For film trivia geeks with a quick eye, try to find Megan Mullally as one of the Call Girls in RISKY BUSINESS. Mullally would later co-star in the NBC TV comedy WILL AND GRACE. Cruise and De Mornay would date briefly after RISKY BUSINESS. I always liked that they were a couple off-screen.
RISKY BUSINESS would be a summer hit in 1983 with some iconic scenes that remain in Pop Culture's consciousness today. But for writer/director Paul Brickman, RISKY BUSINESS is his one hit wonder. He's only directed one film since RISKY and that was MEN DON'T LEAVE (1990) with Jessica Lange. I saw it when it came out specifically because Brickman was directing. It's a nice film but nothing spectacular except that Brickman launched the career of another young actor named Chris O'Donnell (SCENT OF A WOMAN, TV's CSI LOS ANGELES). If you listen to Brickman's commentary on the RISKY BUSINESS DVD, he sounds like a perfectionist. Perhaps he's not going to do another film until he has total control of the product, much like he did for RISKY (except for the ending). Or is it that RISKY BUSINESS was the best that he had and he didn't have an encore. Here's hoping Brickman has another film like RISKY BUSINESS in him. He is a film auteur I'd like to hear from again.
RISKY BUSINESS elevated the teenage comedy genre with its surreal dream sequences, sophisticated sense of humor, and synthesizer music score that was unique for its time. RISKY BUSINESS resonated for me as I was Joel Goodson's age when I first saw RISKY, dealing with the same guilt and anxiety that teenagers struggle with. Although Tom Cruise would become a superstar thanks to RISKY, director Paul Brickman's career didn't follow Cruise's trajectory. My guess is Brickman is a script doctor now, touching and enhancing other writer's scripts before they go into production. Maybe one day Cruise and Brickman will team up to tell Joel Goodson's story today. Where did Joel end up? What happened to Lana? That would be something to see. As Joel says in the final narration, "Time of your life, eh kid?"