Original US release date: August 5, 1983
Production budget: $6,200,000
Worldwide gross: $63,541,777
Risky Business was not Tom Cruise’s first film, but it was unquestionably the film that launched his career, putting him in a major spotlight in the summer of 1983. Written and directed by Paul Brickman, the film was a massive hit and Cruise’s famous underwear-clad lip-syncing dance to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” has fallen into film legend and is still referenced and replayed regularly, 34 years later.
Confession: I had never seen this film. I was way too young for it when it was released and, until now, I just never took the time to watch it once I was older. I will say that I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. I suppose, based upon the above-referenced iconic dance scene, that I was anticipating something more akin to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What I saw, instead, was something a little darker, a little more complex, and a little more . . . adult.
The story focuses on Cruise’s Joel, a high school senior who has always followed the rules, lived up to his responsibilities, and is on the verge of an Ivy League college career. Along the way, though, Joel feels that he’s missed out on the life of a teenager and longs for some true life experience – particularly of the sexual kind. When Joel’s parents go on a weekend trip, his friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong, in his first role) encourages him to throw caution to wind and hire a prostitute. After meeting call girl Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), Joel gets pulled into her seedy world and must try to find his way back out before his parents get home and without ruining his future.
After finally watching Risky Business, I can easily see the influence it has had on certain films over the decades. 2004’s The Girl Next Door, for example, is tremendously derivative of the classic Cruise vehicle, and I can even note areas that may have influenced Stanley Kubrick in later years and possibly even David Lynch. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut reminds me very much of this film (it even stars Cruise) in content whereas Lynch’s works strike a similar tone, though Lynch’s style infinitely more bizarre than Risky Business. Lynch was working in film before 1983, however, so it may just be a coincidence, though one can gain inspiration at any point in a career.
Whether or not any of my speculation is accurate, Risky Business effortlessly and deftly shifts between a light-hearted comedy and a more serious drama dissecting the darker side of humanity. Somehow, the film exists simultaneously as encouragement to step outside of one’s comfort zone and a cautionary tale against throwing caution to the wind. That statement suggests that the film lacks a clear focus or direction, but I would disagree with that particular assessment. Instead, I believe that Brickman desires to take a dichotomous look at the duel nature of life – the good and the bad, the exciting and the mundane, the clean and the dirty – and then let the audience decide which direction they wish to take for themselves.
Cruise helps Brickman accomplish his goals by stepping up to bat and hitting a grand slam. He would have more technically challenging roles, later in his career, but this was his first starring role. The pressure on his shoulders must have been immense. But he turns in a humble and endearing performance that makes it easy to understand why the entire country took to him. Rebecca de Mornay also delivers as the mysterious Lana, who feels genuine on the surface but never fully lets the audience buy into her sincerity. She uses her physicality to manipulate both the characters and the viewer, always suggesting that there’s more going on with her than we know.
Risky Business is the type of film that could only have come about in the eighties. It’s a fearless coming-of-age tale crafted for an audience that was far-less prudish than what we have today. Brickman had the luxury of being able to craft his story as he pleased without being concerned about backlash for the sexuality or any potential – yet nonexistent – message that more modern, pretentious audiences would likely read into the film. The fact is that the movie a classic, and it’s a classic for reasons that go far beyond one solitary dance scene. Risky Business delivered unto the world one of the biggest movie stars in history and did it while telling an engaging and entertaining story about what we do when we have to choose between living and simply existing.
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