Capsule Movie Review: Risky Business (1983)

Risky Business 3

Risky Business

Coming-of-Age Drama | 98 Minutes | 1983 | United States

* * * *

Joel (Tom Cruise), a teenager coming towards the end of his time in high school, lives with his parents in a leafy Chicago suburb. He is good-looking and his parents are wealthy, but they are also demanding, and he subsumes a fluent strain of existential angst with worry over schoolwork and his future prospects. Beyond a litany of tests, he is involved in a Future Enterprises programme, while his father wants him to follow in his footsteps by attending Princeton.

When Joel’s parents fly off on vacation, he is enticed into calling a prostitute by the name of Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). Scarcely any older than Joel, slender and blonde, she arrives and they experience a night of intensely vaporous sex. But the following morning Joel heads for the bank to withdraw Lana’s payment, and returns to find that she is gone along with his mother’s Steuben glass egg. In attempting to recover the egg, Joel dives into a world of pimps and high-speed chases, sunken Porsches and pop-up brothels. At every turn, Lana pulls Joel effortlessly deeper, and he is left to salvage what he can before his parents come home.

Equal parts The Graduate (1967) and Blue Velvet (1986), Risky Business is an adolescent male’s gaze into a sunken society of unconstrained sex and inevitable vice. Lana is the lure, and there Joel can laugh and act with an agency denied him in the less exciting but equally corrupted sphere of grades and admissions. The film hums on the edge of satire, but despite all of his advantages and the mishaps to which he naively succumbs, we are never inclined to scorn or condemn Joel: we partake in his vision, and in Lana’s too, looking beyond her ruthless calculations.

Directed by Paul Brickman, and launching the careers of both Cruise and De Mornay, this is a stylish and atmospheric picture, energetic, sharp-witted, and lots of fun, with terse dialogue, sleek cinematography, and a pulsating score by Tangerine Dream. It features Cruise’s famous underwear dance scene, as Joel thrusts and lip-syncs to Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’. But emerging from the subconscious – it opens with a dream sequence, Joel’s narration serving as a framing device – Risky Business is at its best in clandestine empty spaces and empty moments, as when Joel drags two black bin bags to the trash, or in the morning after his first night with Lana, as they grope towards some shared understanding.

In the second half of the film, sometimes moody exposure gives way to straightforward plot. An evening where Joel’s friends and classmates intermingle with assorted hookers lacks verve, and Lana’s pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano) is never more menacing than when he is patient and vague: when he forces Joel to buy back all of his furniture, the simple scheme makes the character less fierce. The concluding scenes with Joel’s parents are also a little too neat.

A sort of coda to Risky Business, in which Joel and Lana briefly reconcile, restores some of the right pressure to what remains an engaging and hugely entertaining work. Paul Brickman’s original ending – and it is remarkable that such an astute director didn’t go on to have a much fuller career – closed the film on a more hesitant note, and this ending is worth seeking out on DVD.

Risky Business 1

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