Risky Business: I Say ‘What the Fuck’

When Risky Business ended at the Castro Theater tonight, those I watched it with started talking about how Joel—Tom Cruise’s character—was a lousy person. Everyone in the film, they said, was a lousy person.

I started agreeing with them, but I changed my mind. That’s what I’m writing about now; why we should like these characters.

I think, really, we all really just need to learn to say, ‘what the fuck’ and be like Joel. And Lana. And Guido the Killer Pimp.

Risky Business is an excellent movie. It’s completely surprising and compelling and unlike pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen. It holds up wonderfully and doesn’t feel dated or tired in the slightest. I also want to give Risky Business props for pulling off what must be the most challenging trifecta of all time: It makes me think fondly of the 80s, high school, and Tom Cruise.

Here’s the basic story to refresh your addled memory:

risky-business-1983-joe-pantoliano-tom-cruise-pic-2Joel’s parents go away. His douchey friend played by the underrated Curtis Armstrong feeds him some bullshit about, “Sometimes you just have to say ‘what the fuck.'” Joel, believably young and innocent (if privileged), ends up booking an evening with a call girl, Lana, played by Rebecca DeMornay. He lacks the funds to pay her, she swipes his mom’s artsy crystal egg as collateral, they go back and forth until he’s turned his home into a bordello and Guido the Killer Pimp (Joey Pants!) has somehow ended up with all the money.

Are these people lousy? Certainly Joel’s friends are, for the most part. When asked, all they want to do with their lives is make money. Joel at least says he wants to help his fellow man. Lana, Joel’s call-girlfriend, does check the value of pretty much everything in Joel’s house when he’s off at school. And one can make a convincing argument that Lana is setting Joel up from the start.

That, from the first time she sets foot in his house, Lana’s planning to rip Joel off, working in cahoots with Guido.

And Joel. He gets himself suspended. Fails two midterms. Drowns his dad’s Porsche. And then he turns his suburban Glencoe home into a house of ill repute while simultaneously interviewing to get into Princeton.

But, in the end, I like them both. I like them all. I even like Guido the Killer Pimp and I’ll explain why.

Because sometimes you just have to say, ‘What the fuck.’

tom cruise Risky BusinessJoel isn’t a bad guy. Sure, he’s privileged and protected and naive. But what does he do? He does the best he can with the situations he’s presented with. He does some questionable things, like betraying his overbearing parents’ trust, but he isn’t mean hearted. He doesn’t hurt anyone. He says ‘what the fuck’ and loses his virginity to Rebecca DeMornay—something I’m certainly not going to judge him for. He digs himself into a hole and does what he can with what’s available to get out of it. He makes a bunch of money, but then he loses it all to Guido.

So all Joel ends up with is experience. Life experience. And despite all the mistakes he made—mistakes he knows he made—he gets into Princeton. Because “Princeton needs guys like Joel.” What kind of guys are those? Not those that will do anything for a buck, but those who can turn shit into Shinola and come out without losing their shirt.

Lana, too, gets a bad rap. Does she intend to roll Joel from the beginning? When I left the Castro, I thought so. Now, I dont.

While it would be tidy to lay it all at Lana’s feet, that’s not what’s in the script. She comes out to Glencoe and, when Joel lacks the cash to pay her price (exorbitant in 80s dollars, but caveat emptor) she doesn’t over do it. She just takes the Stuben crystal egg. It’s hardly something you’d pawn for cash, if that was her game.

Curtis Armstrong Risky BusinessThen she escapes from Guido with Joel in the Porsche (and we get Curtis Armstrong’s wonderful backseat performance). While he’s off at school, she checks the value of all his parents’ goods, but she doesn’t take anything.

And that’s important, I think. Because if she was planning on ripping off Joel with Guido from the beginning, why not do it now? The school day is plenty long enough. So at least she hasn’t had the idea until this point.

But when Joel comes home from school, and Lana has one of her friends there making some cash off his other asshole friend, Joel asks them to leave and they do. Guido shows up and at that point, has Joel become the mark?

I’m dubious. I don’t see a plan in action. I see people reacting to the situations in front of them.

Joel doesn’t agree to Lana’s brainstorm to make money off all the soft (and quick) Glencoe kids until Joel accidentally puts his dad’s Porsche into Lake Michigan. You could argue that that was Lana’s fault, but I’m not sure. It would be easy to drop a nod in the film that Lana sends the car into the drink on purpose—but there’s no hint of that. Nothing. Joel steps on Lana’s toes by reminding her of how privileged he is and how unprivileged she’s been. She bails and the rest is just bad luck.

Joel gets suspended, trying to salvage the car and everything gets worse. In desperation, he turns to Lana and her plan.

So then? Then has Joel become the mark? Maybe then. Maybe then yes. Which means what?

TRisky Business Rebecca DeMornay nippleshat Lana, like Joel, is the kind of person Princeton needs. She knows how to make the best out of what life gives her. Is she really trying to get out from under Guido? Seems likely. Maybe, as she says, she still owes him money. What can she do?

I know. She can give Joel a huge cut of the money he’s doing little to earn, but then she’ll farm him to Guido to get herself square.

That’s what I think happens. Does she like Joel? Yes. Is she using him? Yes. Does she hurt him? No. She gives him an experience no other pampered Glencoe pretty boy is likely to get and in exchange, she directs the money she earned to Guido. Because sometimes you just have to say, ‘what the fuck.’

This is what life has given me and I’m going to take it.

Bronson Pinchot Risky Business

Unfortunately, Bronson says Cruise was virulently (and constantly) anti-gay on the set of Risky Business.

Joel knows, too. At the end of the film, he point blank asks Lana if she conned him. When she hedges, he says he’s just worried about her. She says that they’re both going to be successful, and I agree. It’s not because they’re materialistic assholes like Joel’s friends. It’s because they can roll with the punches and come up intact.

I don’t think that’s lousy. I think that’s life. That’s why Risky Business is so oddly compelling: because these characters aren’t masterminds of grand plans. They’re just people doing what they can to get by in the fucked up, materialistic 80s.

So that’s my defense of a pampered, privileged temporary pimp and a conniving, calculating call-girl. I just like Guido because, c’mon, Joey Pants!

Let’s also be grateful for Bronson Pinchot and the fact that no one is talking about a feature film version of Perfect Strangers.

10 responses on “Risky Business: I Say ‘What the Fuck’

  1. I liked it a lot too. But I think there’s more scamming going on than you give it credit for. It’s hard to say for sure, but too much of it seems way too convenient. She steals the egg to lure him on. It’s awfully convenient that Jackie tells Joel where he might find Lana. She appears at the restaurant, he leaves, and right away she comes out to further lure him on.

    Then the moment he leaves her alone again, she prices everything in the house and drives to the train station to get her friend. She is certainly up to something by now.

    When Joel kicks Lana and her friend out, they walk away. We cut to Joel, dressed differently, lifting weights, when he overhears Guido outside with the girls. Why he is there? How does he know where Joel lives? Why didn’t the girls walk away long ago? Lana had to have told him to come over and play out that charade.

    • It’s hard to say, right?

      I feel that if the whole goal was to get a ton of money from the start, they sure went to a lot of trouble. His backdoor is unlocked throughout the film. He goes to school. Boom. They don’t clean him out because they aren’t really thieves. Lana checks those prices but it’s envy, not mercenary. She could have sold a tiny fraction of that stuff for more than $8K most likely.

      She just gradually spots an opportunity to make some money off Joel’s asshole friends, no real crime there…

      I see a lot of signs that she doesn’t have a big plan. Remember, Guido fucks up his car chasing Lana. This is another reason why I think Guido is a very late addition to the scheme—he’s got to be paid back for the hospital bills, clothes, and now his car… He could have found out where Joel lives just like he Joel found out where to find Lana—through Jackie.

      But yeah. Joel is the mark from the start, just the plan doesn’t exist until the opportunity does. At first, Lana just wants $300 off him, which I’m guessing is hugely above what she normally charges. Then she plays everything like a survivor. And in the end, they both just come up clear of something looming over them: Lana pays her debt to Guido while Joel loses his virginity and secures his future. Neither makes any real money.

  2. You know, I just finished watching the movie for the umpteenth time. I think that perhaps there was some setup with Joel, but I think that Lana may have fallen for him. One of the reasons I say this is that Lana was noticably absent when Guido shows up to sell back Joels belongings. Her friend, however, was there and was a willing participant, making fun of Joel in the process.
    Now, at the end of the movie, in the ending that was shown, Joel and Lana DO have the discussion of whether this was a setup. You can see that Lana thinks about it and tells him no. Afterwards, while they are walking, Lana says “Well, I guess we aren’t going to see each other for awhile.” In my mind, this line says that they are going to see each other again. In addition, she asks Joel if they can spend the evening together.
    What this says to me, that while somewhere along the line Lana was somewhat involved in the scam of Joel, during the process she distanced herself from it as she fell for him.

  3. I like Guido because even though he’s trying to get by in spite of Joel messing with his livelihood by aiding Lana and Joel’s “diluting of Guido’s pimp control”, Guido STILL “likes Joel” and DOESN’T do Joel bodily harm, and only recoups money Joel made as a pimp. So, Guido is more than “Joey Pants”… he’s as nice to Joel as his twisted ego/pride can allow him to be. Or maybe Guido is just a “good businessman” and may not want to burn a bridge with a potential future valuable resource? He’s the “killer pimp” who never as much as even hits anybody as far as we can see.

    • Sounds a bit like you’re trying to justify your affection for Guido, Hugh. It’s good enough for me to like him because he’s an interesting character, well-played.

      In the context of the film, he is who he is—not a caricature but a man of complexity, only some of which is evidenced and explained. I think he’s in it for the money and uses the threat of violence to motivate people. He is neither a bad nor a good man. He may recognize something of himself in Joel, but if so, his way of fostering that is to put Joel in the crucible. That’s how you learn to be a killer pimp. Hard lessons are remembered.

  4. I love each and every character if this movie. Even his materialstic friends;since they help Joel whenever the time comes. Guido is quite a nice guy for a pimp since he never physically harms anyone in whole movie and gives Joel some practical lesson. Parents though seem irritating are pretty much nice folk who trust their son. Guy from Princeteen is awesome as he has unorthodox aproach and accept Joel for who he is. I dont need to need to explain why I like Lana and Joel since you told it so nicely in your article.

  5. Joel was the mark as soon as Lana searched the house while he was at school.
    Please remember Guido is the mastermind in all of this the rest of the people are his pawns.
    How I see it is: as soon as she went through the house she called Guido and told him about everything in the house he then told her Vicky will be on her way. While he could work out a plan!! he worked out stealing all the items from the house would not make a big enough profit and police will be involved 100%. Here’s I his plan: So it’s simple, car gets dumped in the lake (the car was going to get damage anyway they could do it the lake just came to fruition, that’s how they got Joel), Joel has no choice but to turn his house into a brothel for a night. Then Lana and Joel go for a train ride while Guido steals all the contents from the house, knowing Joel has a ton of money and needing the items he stole back so his parents don’t find out everything that has gone on , basically Guido gets the money without hurting anyone, well with exception to the egg. When Vicky throws the egg this is the give away that is was all a setup. Simple.

    • yeah, jim. that’s one way it could have played. of course, it assumes that guido is not only a killer pimp but a conspirator of great foresight operating with a team of multi-talented women who also choose to have sex for money. but it’s a film. the writer could have written the script with the idea that guido and his team were clever, or that they were good at spotting opportunity. my read on the theme of the film — how their actions compare to Joel’s — is that it’s a film about opportunity. it’s about knowing when to say, “what the fuck.”

      that’s what a good screenwriter focuses on: themes that are reflected through plot.

      if Guido is just (or amazingly) devious, then the film means less. it may seem to make more sense, but only if you think of the film as capturing reality instead of commenting on it.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.