Sunday Morning at the Movies: Risky Business

There is a saying that the best predictor of the future is the past, which is true enough most of the time.  Tomorrow is likely to be very much like today and even yesterday and then it isn’t. Change can come fast or slow; either so slowly you don’t notice it or so quickly that you didn’t see it coming.

Measurement is a real issue when one is trying to gauge cultural change, and I’m inclined to use movies as a yardstick. The field of economics has all manner of measures, GDP and such, technology has Moore’s Law, and culture has Tom Cruise.

Since Tom Cruise has been in movies since 1981, and he’s never entered a fallow period, his movies are particularly useful for measuring cultural, and to an extent, economic change.

“Risky Business” was early in his career, and it was a breakthrough film for Cruise as a leading man. Released in 1983, it’s about a high school senior in the suburbs of Chicago, Joel Goodson (Good son, get it?) whose parents go out of town for a few days, leaving him in his upper class home alone.

He begins to experiment with his freedom innocently enough (drinks his father’s scotch, dances around the house in his underwear) but events soon begin to escalate. He takes his father’s Porsche out for a spin, and then, egged on by his friends, hires a prostitute to come to his house. This sets in motion an uncontrolled slide in events. The Porsche ends up in Lake Michigan and now he has to get it fixed before his parents get home. The film culminates in a raucous party, masterminded by his call girl/girlfriend, where his horny high school friends are introduced to her high end prostitute colleagues. To return to the status quo, Joel Goodson turns his parents’ home in to a brothel for a night.

At first blush, a third if a century later, one is struck by how normal the story seems. The kids of 1983 dress and talk much like their early 21st century counterparts. They get high, they have sex, they obsess over their future, and they make stupid mistakes and are punished for it. Less the internet, phones and social media, they are not dissimilar to today.

Joel’s behavior does not seem unusual. Much comedy is predicated on stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and in “Risky Business” the convention holds up at first. Joel is an ordinary boy whose risk taking puts him in extraordinary situations. The imminent return of his parents is the ticking click that drives the story.

But looking closer, the story begins to become dated.

First of all, given the proliferation of cameras and social media, the idea that Joel cold keep secret from his parents what was happening at home comes unraveled. They’d know, and they’d know quickly. A possible driving force in today’s passivity in kids might be that they can’t get away from their parents to experiment.

Deeper down, however, the story runs afoul of our fluid interpretations of sex and gender. A premise of the story is that teen boys are anxious to have sex and as long as their desires are fulfilled without violence, it’s a good thing. So, if boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back and she rewards him with sex, that’s an acceptable story arc. That premise is now in play. If the hetero male sex drive is rooted in toxic masculinity, it is unknown under what conditions it is ever OK to have sex.

There is also the issue of changing attitudes towards prostitution. The words “human trafficking” was not in the popular lexicon in 1983 and women who manipulated men on their own terms for money were considered to be powerful. There was a pro-prostitution lobby. Lana, Joel’s prostitute girlfriend, is the only character in the film fully in control of events. She has a pimp, but defies him. She is presented as the ideal female of the day; beautiful, available, smart, aggressive, guilt free and a ruthless capitalist.

And then there is the biggest change of all which is the morphing of post-pubescent boys from reckless sex-seeking missiles to rape victims. “Risky Business” was conceived, made, presented, and sold as a comedy, and yet, if somehow the film had been locked in a vault until today and then released, it is easy to see how the reviews would be “OMG! Tom Cruise stars in a film about the mass statuary rape of a whole high school full of boys by a bunch of older prostitutes, and they did it for the money!”

The penultimate sequence in the movie is the party where Joel’s high school friends, some of who look like they are freshman, are rotated, assembly line style, to the upper bedrooms to liaison with grown women. This story conceit is a no-go now. As part of our cultural path that seeks to level the differences between men and women, we’ve decided that sex between an older woman and a younger boy is exactly the same as sex between an older man and a younger girl. If the younger girls are victims of a sexual predator, then so must be the boys, regardless of what the boys themselves might think. They might think they’ve just had the greatest night of their lives, but now, they are wrong; they were raped.

And that is a landmark cultural shift in attitude that makes “Risky Business” impossible.

That’s the curious, some might say insidious, thing about cultural change. No one sees it coming and no one knows where it’s going. You can’t even see it happening because it’s happening inside people’s heads. It has been 35 years since the release of “Risky Business,” and if you went back 35 years from 1983 it would be 1948. The baby boomers were in diapers then and no one could have foreseen that in 21 years, those kids would be tripping balls and rolling around naked in the mud at Woodstock.

There is a scene in “Risky Business” where Joel and his friends are in a diner talking about their future, and what they conclude is that their dominate goal in  life is to make money. In 1969, no one would have predicted that while the early boomers were protesting the Vietnam War and rolling around in the mud, the later boomers, like Joel, would be the inventors of yuppie culture and love their Beamers. No one in their right mind would have predicted that in 35 more years, teen boys full of hormones could be interpreted as the victims, and not the perpetrators, of a mass statutory rape. It’s just crazy!

So, while “Risky Business” looks like today, and has aged well compared to any film from 1948 if viewed from through the lens of 1983, it documents a world gone by. We’ve entered a sort of new Victorian age, less any of the modestly, and as a result, both comedy and drama are a lot harder to pull off. It’s hard to have drama when technology can solve every problem and satisfy, cheaply, most desires, and it’s hard to have comedy because people are so cheerlessly earnest. We now have TV shows that openly boast about how they will make you cry, and not with laughter, but with maudlin emotion. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather watch Joel land his dad’s Porsche in Lake Michigan and get the money to fix it by pimping out his friends.

Meanwhile, Tom Cruise has moved on and on. He’s appeared in so many movies across so many genres and eras, he almost has no equal. Before the 80s had ended, he had appeared in films as diverse as “Top Gun,” “Cocktail,” “Rain Man,” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

For my money, “Jerry McGuire,” released in 1996, was peak Tom Cruise. He was at the top of his game then, and the character provided the perfect vehicle for expressing the kind of man American culture was supposed to create. McGuire was a transitory figure between the horny and sexually aggressive 80s and the beta-male ethos that dominates today. The film is full of secondary characters that presage the leading men and women to come. There is the claque of bitter divorcees whose gauntlet he must run to reach the single mom he adores, and there is the nebbish male babysitter she employs. Jerry McGuire starts the movie as 80s Tom and ends the movie as 2000s Tom.

From an economic sense, Cruise has since fallen in to the current pattern of the industry and dedicated his talents to what are essentially super hero movies. Both the “Mission Impossible” and “Jack Reacher” franchise films are super hero movies in the sense that the characters have super hero-like abilities; they can’t be killed, they never fail, they have no serious love interests, and the films are held together by effects-driven action sequences. To me, they are sexless robots. I’ve challenged my kids to recount the plot lines to these movies, along with the Keanu Reeves series “John Wick” and Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer,” and they can’t do it. I don’t know what they are about either; they are short on theme and story. They reflect the globalization of the film industry where action dominates because it’s a commonly engaging element in China and other places where American films are sold. We shall not see Tom as Joel Goodson again, which is sad.

Or, maybe not…  I suspect “Risky Business 2” would be a pathetic affair devoid of any of the comic charge of the first one. Joel lives forever as a memory, and in my mind, he’s in some bar in Chicago, telling a disinterested millennial bartender about the craziest week in his life, some 35 years past.