Blu-ray Review: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH Comes to Criterion

Senn Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates star in a seminal teen comedy, directed by Amy Heckerling.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Blu-ray Review: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH Comes to Criterion

The Criterion Collection, known for its lofty treatment of high-end World Cinema, is engaging in some risky business. The boutique label’s new release of Amy Heckerling’s notoriously raunchy and hormonal American teen comedy isn’t exactly the first dip into said pool, though it is the deepest.  

Almost on cue, certain Criterion armchair gatekeepers piped up hard in protest at the announcement that Fast Times at Ridgemont High would be brandishing the honorable 'wacky C.' Adding to the debate: that cover art. Part well-honed stylish throwback, part generic VH1-level 1980s nostalgia, disapproval of the new Blu-ray’s cover does indeed hold more water than the dispute over the insertion of the film itself into the hallowed collection.

Released in 1982 by a major studio, Fast Times assumed a relatively unique position amid its fellow boundary-pushing teen films of the age. The age of the drive-ins and their cheap 'n' tawdry independently-produced 'passion pit programmers' was quickly giving way to the rise of various VHS 'video nasties,' thus driving the market for all manner of 'trash cinema' into the confines of private residences. Among the several bonds of commonality shared by both the VHS-driven and drive-in subsections of the then-contemporary teen comedy is that they typically were not crafted to be watched all that closely.  

Fast Times, while ticking the lurid sex n’ stoners boxes, was different. Stocked with a cast of soon-to-explode up-and-comers, Heckerling grafted the tried-and-true tropes of the trashy teen screen onto an of-the-moment character study ensemble. It is both rawly titillating and legitimately emotionally resonant. So much so, that several of the film’s powers-that-be at the time hard a tough time reconciling with it.

Some, such as its producers, pushed for more gratuitous T&A. (Word is that even Cameron Crowe’s original screenplay — which the wunderkind based on his own journalistic novel, having gone undercover as a high school student for a year — had the Phoebe Cates/Jennifer Jason Leigh 'blowjob' training scene not at a school lunch table, but topless in a hot tub. Heckerling wisely nipped that in the bud). Others, including the executives at Universal Studios, were embarrassed by the movie, opting to cripple its theatrical release.

Thankfully, Fast Times found its audience. This was in due in large part to Heckerling’s interpretation of Crowe’s screenplay, and the ace casting that fuels the film to this day. Leigh plays Stacy Hamilton, a freshman at the ubiquitously suburban every-school, Ridgemont High. Over the course of an entire school year, Stacy will go from nimble virgin to plenty experienced. Yet underneath the libidinous veneer of her various sexual pursuits (all ill-advisable, all crappy), Stacy remains a little girl at heart.  

As Heckerling observed about the aptness of the film’s title, this is the story of youths who suddenly grow up too fast. To paraphrase the director, it’s like Stacy’s a kid, kid, kid… then (needle scratch) adult. It’s all too much too soon. Leigh, in her boldness and youthful effervescence, channels Stacy’s conflicted quality perfectly. It is just one of many legitimate star-making performances in the film.

Another is Sean Penn. Though his perpetually stoned surfer character Jeff Spicoli has (by design) dominated the perception of Fast Times since its release, he is actually only a supporting player. But what a supporting player he is.

The freewheeling raucous texture with which he imbues the movie can’t help but elevate it. Spicoli, with his stoner drawl and checkered Vans (leaving a national fad in his wake), gets just enough screen time to explain, if not entirely justify, his overtaking of the film’s legacy. It would be the only time heretofore that Penn went full-on comedic with one of his roles, which he famously fully immerses himself in for the duration of his shoots.  

Fast Times at Ridgemont High_7.jpeg

It’s reported that VHS copies of Fast Times far and wide suffered for the pause button during the famed Phoebe Cates/Judge Reinhold poolside fantasy sequence. This, it must be said, is quite understandable, considering the steamy potency of said moment. Often copied but never duplicated, the abrupt shift from the imagined slow-motion come-on to humiliating mundane reality of Reinhold getting busted while jerking off in the bathroom by the very girl he’s fantasizing about has an unquantifiable quality.

It evidences that Heckerling and Crowe not only get both, but understand that within the parameters of their own freshly-forged more-authentic teen comedy, one without the other is dishonest. While not quite the first film to broach such territory (Michael Schultz’s 1975 Cooley High is a vital precursor), it goes the farthest in all its directions.  

Not everyone feels the same about Fast Times being assessed as an important classic contemporary film. At the time of this review, I’ve just wrapped up teaching an eight-week university course on comedy film history, which featured Fast Times in a prominent role. A few of the handful of students who were already familiar with the movie expressed disagreement about the film being considered a comedy at all. Even Universal Studio execs in 1982 deemed Spicoli the only funny thing about the movie. The question is, is such a character, so memorably locking horns with his strict History teacher (Ray Walston), enough? In any case, this is not the kind of comedy that pounds audiences with gags every five seconds.

I actually sympathize with the notion of Fast Times as not fully a comedy, as it is unquestionably Stacy’s story, which is a bit of a rough go. (Really, it’s all about her starting high school amid a lousy loss of virginity and bad subsequent sexual experiences, culminating in abandonment and abortion. Not exactly lightweight shenanigans).  

But, as film historian Howard Suber tells us on his own Criterion commentary track for Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, “Comedy is not trivial. Comedy trivializes. It takes the things that are closest to us, most filled with apprehension discomfort and pain, and it uses the emotion behind that discomfort and pain, building on the tension it produces until it releases it in an explosion of laughter. No pain, no laughter.” And, even in the case of something like Fast Times, where there is no “explosion of laughter,” but rather satisfying intermittent tickles, the principle stands.

Criterion’s release of Fast Times (an unforeseen development, to be sure) splits the difference between recycled bonus features from earlier Universal editions, and newly generated content. Here’s the official list:

•           New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Amy Heckerling, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray

•           Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe

•           Television version of the film from the eighties, featuring deleted and alternate scenes

•           New conversation with Heckerling and Crowe, moderated by filmmaker Olivia Wilde

•           Reliving Our “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a 1999 documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew

•           Audio discussion from 1982 with Heckerling at the American Film Institute

•           English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

•           PLUS: An essay by film critic Dana Stevens and, for the Blu-ray edition, a new introduction by Crowe 

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Of the newly available content, the most notable might be the 95-minute edited-for-television version. Not only are all the explicit moments un-surreptitiously removed, but the swear words are overdubbed with jarring, not-quite-right obviousness. The glaring nature of such scrubbing (and the sheer amount of it) is, of course, the central appeal of such squeaky-clean edits of movies that have no business being squeaky clean.

Watching this unearthed broadcast television artifact is an amusing good time in its own right. The print is pan and scanned, and has seen better days, but I suppose all of that is simply part of the retro experience. This sort of bonus fare is typically more Shout Factory than Criterion, making it an unexpected inclusion in this unexpected release.  I suppose it’s right at home, then.

The other major new extra is a thirty-plus-minute chat between Heckerling, Crowe, and actress/filmmaker Olivia Wilde. It’s conducted remotely, but well edited and presented in high resolution, so as to not come off as shoddy.  Although Heckerling is always game to talk Fast Times, there’s an aspect about her that communicates she has been talked out about it.  Crowe, having aged visibly since I last saw him in the We Bought a Zoo days, is as affable as ever. If anything, Wilde is too radiant, too happy, for the room. But understandably, these people are heroes of hers.  She talks a lot about how Fast Times informed her own raucous teen comedy, Booksmart.

In said video chat, both Crowe and Heckerling make a point of crediting Criterion for reinstating their original X-rated cut, the main difference being some very brief male nudity. This does indeed appear to be the case, although curiously, Criterion isn’t using this fact in its promotion for this disc. The transfer itself has come under fire in Criterion fan circles for, once again, adding a heretofore unseen teal tinting to the film.  While the side-by-side comparisons that can be found elsewhere online do indeed detail a definite discrepancy, it didn’t bother me for one second while watching the newly restored film on its own.  

While the transfer may or may not be totally awesome, anyone who barks about the validity of Fast Times at Ridgemont High as part of the Criterion Collection is simply out of step with both popular culture and the label’s own mission statement. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of room for this one alongside of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard. (And John Hughes, lest anyone forget).

Besides being an early resume entry for the actors already covered, not to mention Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, Brian Backer, and Robert Romanus, Fast Times stands as both formative and inspirational amid the venerable teen comedy niche. It has certainly come of age in fine form.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

  • Amy Heckerling
  • Cameron Crowe (screenplay)
  • Cameron Crowe (book)
  • Sean Penn
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Judge Reinhold
  • Robert Romanus
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Amy HeckerlingCriterionSean Pennteen comedyUSCameron CroweJennifer Jason LeighJudge ReinholdRobert RomanusComedyDrama

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