Smart Times at Beverly Hills High in 'Clueless' : Movie review: Amy Heckerling's script makes for a funny--and, yes, literary--teen farce. Alicia Silverstone is a standout.

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To hear almost-16 Cher Horowitz tell it, "I actually have a way normal life." True, her mom died during "routine liposuction," but she now lives happily with her fierce litigator father ("He gets paid $500 an hour to fight with people") in great Beverly Hills style. "Isn't my house classic?" she enthuses. "Its columns date back to 1972."

Effervescent, unflappable, supremely pleased with herself, Cher (delightfully played by the much-publicized Alicia Silverstone) is the comic centerpiece of "Clueless," a wickedly funny teen-age farce from writer-director Amy Heckerling that, like its heroine, turns out to have more to it than anyone could anticipate.

Heckerling, of course, has been to high school before. In 1982, she directed Sean Penn and Phoebe Cates in the hip "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." "Clueless" is as clever and amusing, and this time Heckerling has the advantage of a heroine even Jane Austen could love. In fact, she had a hand in creating her.

For though Paramount is not exactly basing its ad campaign around the fact, "Clueless" is a shrewd modern reworking of some of the themes and plot lines of Austen's beloved "Emma," another story of a self-confident, socially prominent young woman who was surprised to find out how much she had to learn.

That connection points out the unexpected smartness of "Clueless," which may be about high school but depends on familiarity with Billie Holiday and "Hamlet" for its laughs. Put together with verve and style, "Clueless" is a sweet-natured satire of L.A.'s over-pampered youth that gets more fun out of high school than most people had attending it.

Named, like her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), after "great singers of the past who now do infomercials," Cher is absolutely the most popular girl at Bronson Alcott (Beverly Hills High under another name). Convinced that "looking for a boyfriend in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie," Cher is also a self-assured virgin who blithely explains "you see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet."

Still, even for Cher, life does present problems. Like her serious ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), a future environmental lawyer who wears Amnesty International T-shirts, listens to "complaint rock" and takes pleasure in observing the superficiality of Cher's life while helping her dad (Dan Hedaya) with some legal chores.

Even though it makes extensive use of voice-over, always a dicey choice, "Clueless' " script is a treat. And because Heckerling knows just where the jokes are, her direction is dead-on as well, with every actor in the extensive cast both understanding and responding admirably to the material.

Responding best of all is Silverstone, who gives a performance as flawless as Cher's complexion. Cher can sound off-putting and manipulative, but Silverstone emphasizes her good-hearted guilelessness until we have no choice but to embrace her, maxed-out credit cards and all.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, sex-related dialogue and some teen use of alcohol and drugs. Times guidelines: The film's tone is one of innocence.

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'Clueless'

Alicia Silverstone: Cher

Stacey Dash: Dionne

Brittany Murphy: Tai

Paul Rudd: Josh

A Robert Lawrence and Scott Rudin production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Amy Heckerling. Producers Scott Rudin, Robert Lawrence. Screenplay by Amy Heckerling. Cinematographer Bill Pope. Editor Debra Chaite. Costumes Mona May. Music David Kitay. Production design Steven Jordan. Art director William Hiney. Set decorator Amy Wells. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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