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Risky Business (1983)

February 6th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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“The dream is always the same. Instead of going home, I go to the neighbors’,” reveals the voice of high school senior Joel Goodsen (Tom Cruise). In the dream, Joel finds “an incredible girl” in the shower, but as she beckons him closer, he gets lost in the steam, and finds himself in a room full of students taking their college boards. With only two minutes left to take the test, Joel realizes he’ll never go to college and has ruined his future.

Joel’s friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong) criticizes him for playing it safe all the time. Joel’s parents leave town and entrust him with their house in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Joel cuts loose by cranking up his dad’s stereo and boogeying around to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” in his underwear. Then he takes the old man’s Porsche 928 out for a spin. Miles isn’t very impressed, and books Joel a date with a want-ads escort.

A black transvestite (Bruce A. Young) shows up, but takes pity on Joel and refers the teen to a friend of his. “It’s what you want. It’s what every white boy on the lake wants.” Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) comes as advertised, providing Joel with an evening of fantastic sex. In the morning, she asks for $300. Joel has to cash in his trust fund to complete the transaction, but returns home to discover Lana has disappeared, along with his mom’s prized crystal egg. Joel and Miles track her down and end up getting between Lana and her “manager” Guido (Joe Pantoliano).


Joel allows Lana stay with him until she figures a way to get his egg back. Impressed with how much cash the boys in the suburbs have, she proposes introducing Joel’s friends to all of her friends. With Lana in charge of production, Joel’s friend Barry (Bronson Pinchot) acting as treasurer and Joel focusing on sales, a “human fulfillment” partnership is struck. A Princeton recruiter (Richard Masur) who drops by does not seem amused, and neither does Guido, who exacts compensation on Joel as his parents are due to return home.

Production history
Paul Brickman was a native of Chicago who wrote the screenplays for Handle With Care – a drive-in comedy directed by Jonathan Demme about a town united by their passion for Citizen’s Band radio – and Bad News Bears In Breaking Training. By the ‘80s, a script Brickman wrote called Risky Business came to the attention of producer David Geffen, who agreed to let Brickman make it his directorial debut.

Brickman had seen Taps and his first choice to play Joel Goodsen was Timothy Hutton. Against the advice of his managers, Hutton turned the role down to star in Daniel for director Sidney Lumet. Among the actors who came to audition, Brickman didn’t think much of Tom Cruise, whose only significant work at that point had been playing the psycho cadet in Taps. His audition convinced Brickman otherwise and Cruise won the first lead role of his career.


The film originally ended with Cruise and De Mornay realizing their business was a bust. Geffen wanted an ending that was more upbeat. He felt Joel should get into Princeton. Brickman threatened to quit, but ultimately shot the happy ending. Released August 1983, the film was a surprise hit, not only grossing $30 million in the U.S., but sneaking onto the year-end Top Ten List of both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Todd McCarthy in Variety called it “as close to a contemporary The Graduate as has come along in a while.”

At the time, the movie looked like any other junk food item in the franchise of teenage sex comedies – in terms of quality – somewhere between Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin. It might still be, but if Michael Mann ever decided to direct a teenage sex comedy, it would probably look a lot like Risky Business, which is as nocturnal and piercing a satire on capitalism as Hollywood produced during the Reagan Era.

Brickman isn’t after realism here. Even the sex scenes – while vivid – are ridiculous in their geometry. But the film is electrified with a heightened sense of style, from visuals that dangle the audience between risk and reward, to an ingeniously selected rock soundtrack (Tangerine Dream composed a tantalizing synthesizer score), to lighting by Reynaldo Villalobos and Bruce Surtees that emotes noir. Under all the gloss is a black comedy about the perils of free enterprise that’s as wicked as Wall Street.


Chris Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash writes, “Above all, the movie works because it recognizes the dark side of the insouciance it portrays; ultimately it plays like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as made by people who have actually experienced a single day in reality.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Black comedy · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Gangsters and hoodlums · High school · Prostitute · Train

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Piper // Feb 6, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    I keep on wanting to dismiss Risky Business as just another teen sex romp, but it’s so much more than that. The Michael Mann connection is a good one. Between the Tangerine Dream Soundtrack and the stylish direction, this movie aspires to be more and damn if I don’t appreciate it for that.

  • 2 RC of strangeculture // Feb 6, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    That’s intersting on the comparison to the graduate by S & E.

    I gotta say, i’m glad the film had the happy ending that probably best matches the tone and genre of the time.

  • 3 Chuck // Feb 7, 2008 at 7:03 am

    I love Risky Business, its remarkably empathetic and satiric at the same time, which is hard to do without having the elements cancel one another out. The film gets the frustrating, blue ball, will I ever get a break horniness of being a teen without pandering, and the women get some wonderful zingers, I love the one where one of Lana’s friends praises Joel’s friends for being polite, and then adding “quick.”

    I agree with you on the ending Joe, it may techinically be happy, but there is an ambivalence to it, having the business succeed and Joel move on is a more potent spoof of the sort of capitalist shenangans that Brickman was examining. And Pataliano is hilarious, and DeMournay is funny, and sexy.

    Personally, I think it holds together bettter than The Graduate, which does pander, and which does fall apart toward the end.

  • 4 cjKennedy // Feb 11, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    hmmm…I left a comment on Risky Business the other day, but now it’s gone. Am I dreaming?

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Feb 11, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Pat: I think people who haven’t really seen Risky Business think it’s Tom Cruise in his underwear and dismiss the movie on that basis. But you’re right, the script does have something to say, and the terrific style alone would make this a great double feature with Michael Mann’s Thief. I believe Tangerine Dream scored that film and it took place in nocturnal Chicago as well. Thanks as always for commenting!

    R.C.: Jeffrey Wells made the same comment you did on his Hollywood Confidential blog about the film’s ending, praising David Geffen for forcing the director to reshoot it. I find the conclusion more ironic than I do “happy” and agree it’s an improvement over what Brickman had in mind. By the way, I’ve been reading Strange Culture for some time and am glad you decided to drop by and comment. Thanks!

    Chuck: Terrific observation. I think Brickman remains empathetic towards people and only satirizes the system, which gives the film the depth you’re talking about. I think you can interpret the ending in several ways. I actually feel that Joel’s business venture was a failure, yet he discovers that unlike what he’s been preached in high school, failure in the real world isn’t the end, but just the start of something new.

    At any rate, The Graduate was more about apathy, whereas this film was all about enterprise, making it much more of our generation.

    Craig: I’d never delete one of your comments deliberately, so either it was accidental, or it didn’t get saved. If you can recall what you wrote, please feel free to share it with my 11 other readers.

  • 6 cjKennedy // Feb 12, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    I’m sure I just forgot to click submit, or there was a glitch when I did. It was a spectacularly un-insightful comment.

  • 7 Fran James // Jul 21, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    A superb film, watched as a teen and it gave me a thing about Rebecca DeMornay!!! have watched it many times since, the sound track by Tangerine Dream makes the film, gives it an atnosphere that shapes the whole film, makes me feel 18 again every time i watch it, thank god for Rebecca DeMornay lol

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