Cameron Crowe (Say Anything) and Amy Heckerling (Clueless) would both go on to make better movies about the teen experience, but this old warhorse is the one that essentially started it all. Apparently there was so much talent lying around this set that you can see young versions of Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Nick Cage (as Nicolas Coppola) wandering vacantly around the edges of the screen. You could never afford to get this cast in a movie today. It’s hard to believe it was made so long ago that you could smoke inside movie theaters at the time. Fast Times was based on writer Crowe’s undercover experience in a Los Angeles High School back in the day when that meant Valley Girls, surfers, and fast food jobs, not guns, gangsters, and clockers. Essentially it’s all about sex except for an exceptional perpetually stoned performance by once and future method man Sean Penn. His Jeff Spicoli is an unabashed kick every second he is on the screen. He’s wasted, he’s hungry, he doesn’t understand, and he very nearly causes Ray Walston to pack up the ship and head back to Mars. Sure it was his fault that every teen in the country’s vocabulary diminished into the phrases “Hey Dude” and “Awesome Totally Awesome” for the next five years, but sometimes art has its price.
There’s not a lot of substance here but this is the high school I’d most like to go to in movie history. They have neighborhood swimming pools. They live in the land of the shopping malls. Their cars are pretty cool. The music still holds up pretty good. The Go Gos, and Oingo Boingo are heard amid fun references to Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and The Stones. Every male actor in this film seems like he is dancing and singing his part in some wicked hipster attempt to be the coolest. Even Ray Walston’s imperial Mr. Hand probably thinks he’s the baddest ass in two counties. The girls, even Phoebe Cate’s sexual dynamo, seem so much more innocent if not sadly ignorant of any form of birth control. Scalping white rapping swaggering Mike Damone can get you seats to the Beatles (where did you go Ray Romanus?), but though he claims to be a gift to women can barely hold out long enough to wish he had a condom on, and poor Judge Reinhold, one second he’s this soulful brother and the next second he gets dumped, caught masturbating to Phobe Cate’s topless scene of the decade, and working in a Pirate costume.
Sean Penn’s scenes are still so stunning and almost all of them are with Walston. The old time fast talker versus the utterly confused, completely stunned and surprised stoner. If someone called their teacher a dick in class today, there would be undertones of aggression and violence, a threat. Spicoli doesn’t even think that far ahead he’s just saying whatever manages to come to his head, and somehow Sean Penn makes it seem legitimate and even really cool. His “You dick!” was perhaps the most liberating feeling of relief and expression for anyone under 18 at the time, and it actually comes off in a completely non threatening way. I find it hilarious hearing Walston say “Three weeks we’ve been talking about the Platt Amendment!” even before he says “What are you people on dope?” Fast Times reminds you what a hassle it was when you got a really out there psycho teacher. In some of today’s more violent high school movies it would never be imaginable to be so in control of your class. Mr. Hand would have gotten shot in the trailer for 187, he wouldn’t have even made it in to class. Here he actually probably cares that Spicoli learn something. Penn is probably in the film no more than any number of the others but the movie is still so overwhelmingly his even after 20 years. He sets the tone of fun for the whole movie.
These kids are all reasonably nice except for Forrest Whitaker’s football player who even Spicoli is tight with. Adam Sandler’s football scenes in the Waterboy can’t even hold a candle to the work of the enraged Mr. Jefferson.
Post Jerry Springer and until American Pie came along, it has seemed like 15 year old girls are capable of the entire Kama Sutra as opposed to Jennifer Jason Leigh awkwardly losing her virginity in a baseball dugout under Surf Nazi graffiti. My feelings that the geek turning out to be too nice to get laid is amusingly sweet makes me feel like an oddly conservative Miniver Cheevy, but who doesn’t still want to go back to high school and try to get it right this time, besides Jeff Spicoli of course. Not a parent to be found anywhere.