John Hughes built his considerable reputation and wealth by dissecting and giving voice to the minds and hearts of Chicago’s upper class suburban youth. “Risky Business,” which came out the same year as Hughes’ initial effort “Sixteen Candles,” already knew what was in those hearts and minds and it wasn’t angst and parental misunderstandings, it was sex and money.
Tom Cruise is Joel Goodson and his parents are going out of town. There would be a time when the requirements of the teen flick only necessitated a big party, a little romance, and a narrowly averted disaster. “Risky Business” had more on its mind. The kids of “Risky Business” know what is expected of them. Their job is to get into a good college and figure out some way to replicate their parents’ unabashed success. Joel is a marginal student at best hanging on to a Future Enterpriser’s club as if it is his only hope for eventual survival. Cruise’s parents are filmed as if seen from his eyes, and are backed by music that could easily have been found in a fifties training film. He is to go to school, behave and absolutely under no circumstances drive the Porsche.
Of course, he immediately pulls out the hard liquor, turns up the stereo famously dancing in his underwear, and takes the Porsche out for a spin. Then things get interesting. He calls up Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), the local fulfiller of dreams, and violates almost every single room of the house with her. The backing music by Tangerine Dream and the effective cinematography makes the whole thing seem like a dream, while Brickman juxtaposes Joel’s sexual encounter with the old snapshots hanging on the wall of a young and more innocent time. When Joel finds himself short Lana’s fee, he goes to the bank to cash a savings bond from his Grandmother. Lana doesn’t wait. She takes his mothers prized glass egg. Soon, Joel’s got the Porsche out again and is racing the streets with Lana’s pimp Guido hot in pursuit (Joe Pantoliano in one of his hundreds of fabulous cinematic hairpieces).
Lana has plans of her own. She wants to open up house at the Goodson’s and make some money. Joel thinks better of the situation and refuses. Then the Porsche winds up in Lake Michigan and Joel gets a lesson in capitalism.
Brickman has great fun staging arguments between Joel, Lana, her friends, and Guido all in front of what seem like three ever-present watching neighborhood kids. Joel desperately and hilariously tries to complete a Princeton interview amid the chaos of his house being turned into a suburban brothel. Great fun is had comparing the foolish innocence of Joel and his friends to the hard-fought monetary street smarts of Lana, her girls, and Guido, the ever-present killer pimp who isn’t likely to be brushed off without a fight.
“Risky Business” came out when I was pretty much the exact age as Cruise’s Joel, and it was the definitive film of my youth. Kids flocked to see it, usually more than once; some even understood it. Others just fawned over the sex, the shiny car, and the Ray Ban Wayfarers that sparked a revolution in movie tie-ins. For some reason, Brickman never capitalized on the huge success of his first film and seemingly barely got to make another one before being cast aside by the Hollywood money machine. His basic scenario would be remade dozens of times with varying levels of success by talents of varying degree and motivations, but for one brief moment he took the dynamics of American youth and made a taut, bitter, sharp and nearly flawless film — the epitome of the Reagan era.