Originally Published Unabridged on Televisual Word – May 16th, 2023
While most sex comedies engage in little more than decidedly derelict degeneracy, the genre has a high ceiling for potential insight into the desires & snares of the human drive. Transcending far above the lugubrious likes of American Pie & other pro-hedonism hogwash is a classic you’ve likely heard of yet may not have taken as seriously as it deserves: Risky Business. A young Tom Cruise stars as Joel Goodsen, an Ivy-League business student with high career expectations that could come crashing down should he embarrass his name in any miscalculated pursuits of passion. Fearing that a much-craved hormonal hookup with even a willing girl next door could result in a public scandal, he opts to do the deed by hiring the services of a seemingly low-profile (yet highly attractive) prostitute, Lana. But instead of keeping things under wraps, the cunning callgirl blackmails & insinuates herself in Joel’s fragile life to a dangerous degree. Joel’s got to get her off his case & out of the house before his high-strung parents come back from vacation. These financial & emotional stresses result in a series of hijinks both hilarious & disturbing in their escalating extortion.
Most studio filmmakers would abuse this premise for a nigh-unwatchable sleaze-fest to give vile Weinsteinian producers a chance to launder money & sully actresses behind the scenes, but the genteel Paul Brickman writes & directs with insight sympathetic towards those tasked with growing up in a corrupt culture. Brickman contributed scripts for Johnathan Demme (Citizen’s Band) & Clint Eastwood (True Crime), both stories showing an attentive eye for family & cultural connections being formed & dissolved by industrialization & material interests. Risky Business‘s risque writing also has a foundational interest in preserving those bonds; while it’s a fun flick that shows some skin at crucial coupling scenes, the film also contextualizes the constant hormonal tension in the air within social & psychological reality. That Brickman was inspired less by Porky’s & more by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is a crucial distinction of taste. Indeed, this breezy summer cinema also packs the tension leading up to an exciting sexual liaison, as well as the panic that erupts if an encounter goes sour, all wrapped up with neon haziness & a Tangerine Dream trance of a soundtrack to result in what Dave Kehr termed a rare example of “haunting, lyrical satire.”
Tom Cruise’s breakout turn as Joel is among the most true-to-life depiction of college teendom in its tumult of strivings & concerns: he’s got bright eyes, but they’re nervously wide. Joel’s an amicable guy with a lot of healthy masculine energy to let out when dancing around in his undies to Bod Seger tunes when the house is to himself or laughing with some raunchy stories while playing poker with friends. But he doesn’t feel safe honestly exuding his personality around most people for fear of being stuck by socially crippling judgment from authorities. As a business student from a fairly well-off family, he isn’t high-class enough to be immune from scandal, just enough so that any blunder would be somewhat of a social spectacle.
The threat of any unprofessional public expression, especially of the courting kind, results in an expected image to maintain that could easily be tarnished if he puts himself out there too much beyond distant politeness around adults & females alike. Even while his parents are out, the only chicks who enter Joel’s house are with classmate dudes who talk him into giving them a secret spot to do the deed. When handsomely cruising in his parents’ Porsche (predating the status symbol of 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), he settles for watching the girls go gaga from afar — one image curiously placing the barely-legal babes next to the poster of a prepubescent Aileen Quinn in 1982’s oligarch orphan adventure Annie — instead of risking rejection & the gynocentric shaming that comes with it. When a chick-next-door practically begs for Joel’s cruise missile, he opts to bail from the danger zone for fear of her father’s anger if he found out. Even Joel’s wet-dream mistresses are either out-of-reach or entail angry retaliation from nightmare adults upon a touch.
While Joel’s parents are away on vacation, a classmate goads him into considering hiring a prostitute for the blue-balled boy to pour his pent-up interiority into (in more ways than one). What’ll happen in a quick visit, stays in a quick visit. The film isn’t so indulgent as to refrain from having laffs at Joel’s angst-ridden attempts to get his preferred kind of company. He looks bound to scream as a prankster-summoned black gay callguy — who in retrospect seems like a harbinger of future sexual deviancies, with gender-bending Africans being propped up in corporate features for Playboy pornos & Calvin Klein commercials that had once been idolatry exclusive to female white beauty — verbally strongarms some cash before leaving the kid in mutual untouchedness & exasperation. Joel probably spends more energy perusing the classifieds one night than he has trying to bed a babe his whole life, and then he dons baseball protective gear as he himself calls up luscious Lana for some wholly welcome whoredom. He’s stuck in varying states of pretend & is afraid of having a bad experience.
But an idealized erotic encounter finally initiates, Brickman’s direction treats it with awe & even a sense of sobriety in its excitement: the nocturnal entrance of the slender form of blonde beauty Rebecca de Mornay — at a well-developed yet femininely fresh & frail 24, about three years the 21-year-old Cruise’s superior — has the hushed tension of a Halloween horror establishing interior shot before erupting into music-video carnality. As Joel & Lana do it around the house, the camera glides over family photos adorning spaces now being used for nonproductive procreation. Home has been recontextualized as a den of iniquity.
This whore hookup is a blast at the moment, but the pipe layer must pay come morning. With both now clothed, Joel uneasily tries to strike up a conversation with the lackadaisical Lana, who curtly charges him a service fee that he doesn’t have the cash on hand to pay. Imploring her to stay in the house & not meddle to make anything look out-of-place, he rushes to the bank to cash a bond (losing some appreciating assets his future self could have had) to pay for this present prostitute predicament. But he arrives home to find that Lana has left — and taken his mother’s prized antique crystal egg (another lost totem of embryonic implications) with her as impromptu payment. Joel tracks her down, but she won’t immediately cough up the egg & instead takes shelter with Joel in order to avoid her angry pimp (which does allow Joel a chance to white-knight in a car chase scene with the embittered context of this act of machismo not having any actual effect on his skill with girls). What was intended to be a no-strings affair ended up having more strings than a pile of puppets, which is perhaps to be expected from getting entangled with a girl with a body count of at least triple digits.
Lana’s hiding out at Joel’s gives them a chance to get acquainted (beyond the obvious), but she maintains a cool aloofness. This isn’t her first rodeo; while keeping her past to herself, she’s an evidently unlucky sort from a rough part of town & has likely bedded a number of men larger than the number of girls Joel’s so much as even talked to. If anything, this desperate dame who makes Joel turn on a dime is a bit more empathetic than she has to be, even if she (perhaps painedly, perhaps not) uses her awareness of his problems against him. She knows how to assert herself in the places Joel needs a feminine presence most, calculatedly adapting to his tastes & even taking on a distinctly motherly figure. Frequently at a distance from the camera (and Joel), her slender form & crave-inducing curves are out of reach, and intriguingly the direction often bathes her in light & even sometimes puts Joel in somewhat of a void to contrast. More socially experienced than the self-conscious college kid, she shows juuust enough signs of affection to make Joel desire her, but she keeps herself closed off enough to leave Joel eager to help more to try to win her over. It’s never certain to Joel or the audience if she ever had any sincere care for the emotionally vulnerable Joel, but it is for sure that she exploits his niceness by equating the masculine traits he so badly wants to live up to with performing whatever service she desires. Whether bringing in more bossy whore girlfriends to invasively crash at Joel’s property or simply maintaining stronger body language that Rivelino the green lines guy would have a field day analyzing, Lana always controls the frame. Joel’s weakness allows her to insinuate herself as the point of reference for almost every move he takes.
Things get worse for Joel when his parents’ sportscar gets accidentally (?) pushed into a bay during a night on the town with the girlfriend experience. No amount of God-please-help-me-don’t-ruin-me pleading can stop such a mass from obeying the laws of gravity, and consequently shattering Joel’s ability to sweep what he’s been up to under the rug. Adding long-term insult to short-term injury, the ride-lacking wreck is late to school the next morning & therefore subject to serious credential backlash. Again his begging falls on the uncaring ears of another force of nature: this time a schoolmarm holding the power of attendance recording & having no sympathy for Joel’s impotent distress. Precious few days remain to pay for repairs, and there’s no way out through honest action, forcing Joel to accept a role in the get-rich-quick scheme suspiciously suggested by Lana a few minutes before she’d “unintentionally” (and unrepentantly) put the car into neutral & locked its doors on that fatal incline, perhaps running her own game to contrive a relationship ever in her favor.
Monetizing lessons from their perverted relationship, they convert Joel’s family house into a whorehouse, with Lana calling over a collective of fellow callgirls & a shades-wearing Joel donning a car salesman personality to prey on fellow college kids (especially those who share the social vulnerabilities that dragged Joel into this mess in the first place) to get the money. If you’re too shy, too nice, unattractive, unlucky, not experienced enough, not irrationally confident enough, embittered at being manipulated by the unfair fairer sex, lonely with the skin on tv screens being as close as you’ll get, or maybe just have the wealth to afford the price tags of any loveless affair available in your area, Joel’s on the hunt for your vulnerabilities to make a buck off of. Without anything explicit being shown onscreen — although the film does make some disturbing notes such as this pimp party ensuring Joel’s now the most popular he’s ever been & the hookers helping themselves to wear his mother’s clothes to seduce bashful young boys in — the prostitution party makes for a grotesque spectacle, with catcalls, car engines, & loud music blaring out into the suburban night, a smashing social success founded upon cheap, base thrills.
This exploitation extravaganza pays off big time in a material sense, with cash rolling in to the point of a profit being left beyond the car repair costs; plus, an education administrator who had come by to critique Joel’s school performance has been adulterously appeased into approval. Assets & status have been gained. Yet Joel seems vaguely listless at times, worrying about the morality of his actions & retreating to the basement to observe a childhood toy train set loop its contained circuit. Lana dismisses his worries by flattering him in utilitarian terms — “God knows they needed the service!” — and tacks on that he’s “got a girlfriend to boot” before seemingly spontaneously goading Joel out to have a strangely recontextualizing celebratory public sex escapade on a real-life empty midnight subway. To the tune of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” (predating the Miami Vice pilot), she starts off heavily petting her pet in front of silently bewildered passengers as an act of femdom defiance, and after carrying the single drunk remaining passenger out of the train car, she climbs on top & they do the deed bathed in neon city lights.
But as Joel heads back home, he finds that during his flight of fancy & payment to the car mechanic, the prosties have looted the joint of all its furniture at the command of Lana & her pimp. A deceivingly faced & connivingly compunctionless combo, in retrospect they seem to have been playing Joel for a sucker, with Lana’s true allegiances lying in a ruthless psychopath with enough of an ethical deficit to be willing & able to manipulate Joel’s vulnerabilities at a monetary & egotistical profit. They claim all the surplus money left after the car repairs before giving the clueless kid his possessions back so he can rushedly recreate a sense of normalcy in the house before his mom & dad get home.
While thoroughly manipulated by multiple sides, Joel manages to get through the debacle apparently unscathed — at least on the outside. His materialistically picky parents notice a few minor details amiss, such as the stereo volume being maxed out & mom’s precious antique crystal egg sporting an inexplicable crack, but we can turn the settings down to where we want & just buy her a new egg. What really matters is that (thanks to the unknown-to-others sexual bribe to the administrator), Joel has made it into Princeton! Not bad for a 3.1 GPA, especially from a white male in an affirmative-action inferno. You can see him reeling behind his overcompensating shades. It’s a thrilling deception Joel has pulled off: that self-recreation of your image in the eyes of your creators, a dishonest yet arguably essential step in adulthood autonomy.
Yet despite reaching goals & triumphing over a deck stacked against him, what Joel did to get into the doorway of educational institutions (and into the private portals of a female) has robbed him of his innocence while leaving him dubiously equipped to face the future regardless. In a goodbye dinner with Lana in an expensive restaurant overlooking the city below, Joel doesn’t celebrate so much as try to calibrate where he is; even now he isn’t his own point of reference. Their conversation is uncomfortably calculated to appeal to the other as the camera refuses to have them share the frame. When he inquires if their “chemistry” was all contrived to cheat him, he can’t be sure of her passionless denial, which she chases with a guilt-tripping “You don’t believe me, do you?” If Lana’s moved when Joel states that she doesn’t want her to get hurt — perhaps in a weakly indirect attempt to win her over as his own — she stifles any reaction to the emotion seeping through a pained maintained demeanor. What future could she have with this kid who couldn’t even stick to some sense of principle in defeat? Who can’t get himself a chick aside from paying a prostitute such as herself?
The conclusion differs depending on the cut of the film, but both warn of total corruption arising from the resentment of those deprived of true relationship experiences. The theatrical’s is a nighttime walk in the park with Lana as Joel has adopted a somewhat mellowed, teasing tone that suggests he may have picked up some traits, even down to a few superficial phrases, from her pimp who had impressed him with his powerful lack of compunctions. The “coolness” of his downloaded personality reflects the film’s wondrously glittery yet sleazy nocturnal neon aesthetic as expressing both the pleasures of cosmopolitan cravenness as well as the sinister corruption lying beneath, as the couple’s figures are eventually swallowed up by the city’s canopy of trees & office buildings in the closing shot.
But Brickman’s original ending sets for certain that Joel has been spiritually defeated. He may have gone from fear-induced haplessness to learning some emboldened sense of business acumen & sobering sexual reality, but he’s no closer to being able to create relationships, just buy into them. This largely passive stumble into adulthood has led him to hate himself for finding his success by helping perpetrate trivial-at-best, immoral-at-worst practices to enable others to similarly find cheapened ways to get off. Concluding in the restaurant, we view from a cold distance as Joel has to plead repeatedly for Lana to come over to embrace the distraught student. The gravelly aggrieved voiceover narration from Joel — “I deal in human fulfillment. Ain’t life grand?” — is the lamentation of those who exist only to “serve” the base desires of others & have found only simulacrums of affection in transactional return. Thanks for playing.