“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” | Rated R | 1982 | Director: Amy Heckerling | Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates, Robert Romanus, Sean Penn and Judge Reinhold.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is one of those oft-quoted, seemingly beloved movies that I never bothered to see.
The film debut in January 1982, when I was 6. I was more interested in “Star Wars” than the bare breasts of Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I didn’t understand stoner comedy and suffer talk.
An edited version of the movie, with profanity overdubbed and nudity chopped out, was on basic cable and Saturday afternoon UHF movies nearly all my life. I never bothered to watch it for more than few minutes before I changed the channel.
But while it was a series of accidents or oversights rather than a direct slight, I can see now I was absolutely correct to snub this very stupid picture for 32 years.
“Fast Times” doesn’t have much plot. It’s story structure feels like randomly thumbing through the diary of sex and stoner fantasies written by a smartass in English class instead of the day’s assignment.
The fact that the film was written by Cameron Crowe, who would go on to do excellent work with “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous.” All great writers produce bombs once in a while. This was his.
Leigh plays a high school sophomore curious about sex. Cates is her more experienced pal, a senior who is engaged to some guy who lives in Chicago. Cates gives Leigh graphic details on how to perform oral sex while using carrots in the school lunchroom. This scene could have been sexy or funny, perhaps both, but managed to be embarrassing.
I wasn’t embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for what appeared to be two fine, young actresses having to muddle through this terrible material. Everybody starts somewhere, but I feel for those women. That was some real garbage.
Leigh’s character, who is supposed to be 15, loses her virginity to a 26-year-old man. Leigh lied and said she was 19. They have sex on what appears to be a dugout bench in a rundown park. It’s the first of Leigh’s several gratuitous shots of her breasts. I’m all for gratuitous breast shots, but it’s a joyless love scene, as they all are in this film.
This scene, though, begs other questions. If the guy is 26, doesn’t he have an apartment or house? Why are they having sex in a park like a couple of teenagers? Spring for a room at the Super 8 for crying out loud.
There’s a shy movie usher played by Brian Backer. He has eyes for Leigh, but he’s busy receiving terrible advice from his friend Mike Damone, played by Robert Romanus. Damone is a cartoonish high school hood. He scalps tickets to concerts and wears clothes that make him look like a kid hawking newspaper on a street corner in 1937.
Backer chases Leigh, who likes him and wants to go to bed with him. But he’s shy and runs away. So Damone has comically short intercourse with her a poolhouse. This results in pregnancy. Damone agrees to pay for half, but can’t come up with the money so Leigh has to go it on her own.
Her brother, played by the affable Judge Reinhold, sees her at the clinic and offers something akin to sibling support by promising not to tell their parents about the abortion. I’m not sure what any of this means or why it is awkwardly jammed into a teen sex comedy, but at this point I really don’t care what happens to anybody.
Reinhold has some good moments. He wears a silly pirate hat at one point. He also stops a convenience store robber by throwing scalding hot coffee in his face. This doesn’t sound very funny. It isn’t. But that follows the central theme of the film.
The most-beloved scene in the movie involves the curvey Cates getting out of the pool in a red bikini and walking over to Reinhold, opening the top of her bikini and making out with him. This doesn’t even happen in the reality of the film. It’s just a masterbational fantasy of Reinhold’s character.
Even this is ruined when Cates, who got water in her ear from actually diving into the pool, goes into the house to look for some ear drops to clear the blockage. Instead, she finds Reinhold having at himself, who is suitably shamed for his sexual desires.
The most-quoted character is surfer and stoner Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn in likely one of his most cheerful screen appearances ever. Spicoli is a clown who shows up to class late, doesn’t like to wear a shirt and frustrates Mr. Hand, played by the great character actor Ray Walston.
Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. He calls his teacher a “dick” at one point. He has pizza delivered to class one day. It’s cute, I suppose, maybe even amusing. But it doesn’t make me laugh.
Perhaps I’m too old to appreciate this movie. The appeal of sex in cars or stoner surfers was never that great for me and non-existent today. But I think this is simply a very bad movie and I doubt I would have enjoyed it regardless of when I saw it.
I always cringed when I heard those Spicoli quotes. Now, at least, I’m cringing with context.