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Clueless is an improbably entertaining time-waster

After Fast Times -- a movie populated with characters of mostly blue-collar to upper-middle-class origins who did tons of drugs, had explicit discussions about oral sex and worked at burger joints -- I wouldn't have expected Heckerling to find anything to like about Clueless' glitzy, pampered bunch. But somehow, she does. Like Cher, filmmaker Heckerling is slick on top and mild at heart; she fancies herself above it all, but inside she's a softy who just can't help falling in love. The people in Clueless start out with one dimension and end up with at least two.

We meet some very endearing characters, including Cher's befuddled favorite teacher (Wallace Shawn, of course); her almost-but-not-quite-stepbrother (Paul Rudd); and a hapless new girl from New York (Brittany Murphy) who doesn't understand that girls who want to be popular don't date the flannel-wearing, longhaired stoners who hang out on a patch of grass near the school's front entrance that's nicknamed "The Grassy Knoll."

One of my favorite characters is Christian (Justin Walker), a well-groomed dreamboat in the Beverly Hills 90210 mode. Our heroine takes an instant fancy to him and sets about maneuvering him into her bed. The only problem: he's gay. (Or, as one of Cher's friends puts it, "a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holding friend of Dorothy!") Though most movies might have written him off after this, Clueless, refreshingly, keeps the character around, letting him bond with Cher, join in her schemes and even become a momentary hero during a scuffle at a mall. Like nearly everyone else in the picture, he has something to contribute. Heckerling appreciates him, and so does Cher.

Ultimately, it's Cher's newfound ability to appreciate what's inside her friends that makes Clueless so sweet. And it's Silverstone who makes the character so improbably credible. I think what audiences like most about her, besides her good looks, is her utter guilelessness -- and her complete emotional transparency. She has a hilariously open face; she couldn't hide her true feelings on a subject even if she wanted to, and heaven knows she doesn't.

She has a knack for capturing the body language, mating rituals and vocal rhythms of these well-off teens, whose talk traffics in some of the most hilariously ornate phrases this side of Heathers. And though she's so scholastically deficient that she doesn't know where Kuwait is, she's learned to speak the florid phrasing of Beverly Hills teens, and she passes it on to proteges like a pint-sized Henry Higgins. "I tried to tell [my teacher] of my academic aspirations," she says, after getting a report card full of poor grades, "but I was brutally rebuffed."

I wouldn't call Clueless a deep movie, or even an especially memorable one. But for what it is, it's surprisingly good. When it's firing on all cylinders, it proves there's a difference between good fluff and bad. Bad fluff makes you feel guilty for watching. Good fluff involves you on some level so that you have a real emotional stake in what happens, no matter how ridiculous or implausible it might seem.

Clueless.
Directed by Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash and Dan Hedaya.

Rated PG-13.
92 minutes.

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