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Risky Business

The teen sex comedy was dominant when Risky Business opened in 1983 in the wake of Porky's (1982) and scores of other lowbrow works where boys lost their virginity to hot girls and teen audiences waded through clumsy slapstick gags and mistaken identity plots for titillating displays of young naked bodies. One could argue that Risky Business is an art movie version of the teen sex comedy. It is, after all, about a good looking, wealthy but naïve high school virgin (Tom Cruise) who is ushered into manhood by a seductive young woman (Rebecca De Mornay) while his parents are out of town. Cruise's Joel is a Chicago rich kid on the lake and De Mornay's Lana is a tough, gorgeous young prostitute ("what every white boy off the lake wants," promises another professional) with a dangerous streak and a crazy idea: "If we ever got our friends together, we'd make a fortune." It's sexy, smart and funny, but also stylish and filled with social satire and commentary on the culture of money. "This was the Reagan years, it was all about money," explained writer/director Paul Brickman in an interview years later. Under the sexual fantasies is an anxiety about sex and success (which are hopelessly intertwined in Joel's dreams) and a satirical portrait of capitalist enterprise that essentially blurs the line between entrepreneurship and prostitution.

Given such ambitions, the studios shied away from the project. Producers Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch found a sympathetic partner in The Geffen Company, the fledgling production arm of David Geffen's music label. With backing secured and vision supported, they proceeded to search for their cast from a pool of largely unknown young actors. Tom Cruise had a supporting role in Taps [1981] and was in Tulsa shooting Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders [1983] when he was invited out to audition. He looked completely wrong for the part-buff, rough, with greasy hair and a make-up tattoo that couldn't be removed before the audition-but Brickman had a hunch and brought him back to screen test with Rebecca De Mornay, an unknown with a single screen credit to her name. Cruise slipped into the role of the charismatic but shy urban teenager, De Mornay played her part with a mix of seduction and manipulation, and the chemistry clicked, giving both young performers their first leading roles. To fill out the key supporting parts, Brickman gave Bronson Pinchot (the TV series Perfect Strangers [1981]) and Curtis Armstrong (Ray [2004]) their respective screen debuts as Joel's best friends, and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix [1999]), a veteran with a dozen minor credits, the small but meaty role of Guido, "the killer pimp" on the hunt for the runaway De Mornay. It effectively relaunched his career.

Paul Brickman directs it with an elegance that sets it apart from the raucous sex comedies and teen movies of its time. It's a largely nocturnal film, filled with shadows and backlight and designed in cool colors and chic style. Even the fashions transform over the course of the film. Initially in crisp button-downs and sweaters, Joel embraces a new look to go with his new identity and goes about "promoting" his new business opportunity in a casual sport jacket over a T-shirt and a pair of sleek sunglasses (which he wears, of course, at night). Brickman gives key scenes a dreamy slow-motion quality which the moody score by electronic music trio Tangerine Dream enhances. The defining musical piece in the film, however, comes courtesy of Bob Seger. A bored, home-alone Joel slides into the living room wearing little more that socks, boxers and a pair of dark sunglasses and lip-synchs his way through a high-energy performance of "That Old Time Rock and Roll." The sequence, which Brickman and Cruise choreographed together on the set during a production day off, inspired tributes and parodies for decades to come.

Brickman's vision reached the screen almost as he envisioned it. After test screenings, Geffen asked Brickman to rewrite his gloomy ending and, reluctantly, Brickman agreed. But if the tone is less pessimistic, it's still about a once-idealistic teen who transforms from a glib preppy to a smooth entrepreneur, a savvy, slick pimp with a wealthy clientele and a Harvard business plan. Could he be better prepared for business school or the business culture that Oliver Stone would codify just a couple years later in Wall Street [1987]?

Producer: Jon Avnet, Steve Tisch
Director: Paul Brickman
Screenplay: Paul Brickman
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees, Reynaldo Villalobos
Music: Tangerine Dream
Film Editing: Richard Chew
Cast: Tom Cruise, (Joel Goodsen) Rebecca De Mornay (Lana), Joe Pantoliano (Guido), Richard Masur (Rutherford), Bronson Pinchot (Barry), Curtis Armstrong (Miles), Nicholas Pryor (Joel's father), Janet Carroll (Joel's mother).

by Sean Axmaker



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