Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

No shirt?

No shoes?

No dice!

This rule plays an important part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I've always hated that rule, but not as much as Shoeless Joe Jackson did. He was the baseball legend who was forced to endure an entire life without being able to enter a convenience store or a fast food restaurant. This condition was especially harsh for him since he came from South Carolina, where those two types of establishments comprise 97% of all non-residential buildings.

It is a little known fact that Shoeless Joe regarded the greatest tragedy in his life to be not his permanent banishment from organized baseball, but his lifelong inability to enter a convenience store. He spent his last, desperate years in a futile attempt to have the "no shirt, no shoes, no service" law overturned by the South Carolina Supreme Court, failing only because South Carolina doesn't actually have a supreme court. All legal decisions are made by three guys named Cletus who sit on the front porch and chew terbaccy at a moonshine liquor establishment in Barnwell County.

So Jackson died without ever having tasted a cherry Slurpee, and his failure to overthrow this unjust rule is a sad commentary on our society's cavalier disregard of its shoeless, as well as a personal tragedy for one of America's greatest legends.


I once wrote that America has produced only one great philosopher, namely Satchel Paige. But we also have a great fictional one. I speak, of course, of perennially stoned surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli, one of the kids living those fast times at Ridgemont High. Here's an example of his incisive grasp of the principles of the Age of Enlightenment:

So what Jefferson was saying was "Hey! You know, we left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don't get some cool rules ourselves, pronto, we'll just be bogus too." Yeah?

There, in one concise burst of easily understandable, one- and two- syllable words, is an accurate analysis of the basic reason why the American Revolution worked and the Russian did not. If you are going to destroy an unfair system, you had better be prepared to install a fair one. If Lenin could have called upon Spicoli's learned counsel, we would all be reading this review while eating Borscht.

This film, which meticulously catalogues the behavior of high school students circa 1980, was assembled by and starred unknowns, nearly all of whom went on to have substantial careers. The lead character, now well known even to casual film fans simply as Spicoli, the surfer dude who had a pizza delivered to history class, was played by Sean Penn. His two buddies, who had almost no lines, were played by future stars Eric Stolz and Anthony Edwards, both of whom were making their film debuts. Forrest Whitaker has a small part. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates are the two female leads. 17 year old Nic Cage is also in the cast, also in his first film, in a tiny part. (He read for the major part of Brad, and was hired, until they found out that he was 17, and could therefore not work the hours they required). The Brad role eventually went to Judge Reinhold, who delivered it perfectly.

Even the dialogue went on to become part of our lives. If I'm not mistaken, this film brought the word "wuss" into general, everyday youthspeak, where it remains today. (I never heard the word before this movie.)

The other two male leads, Robert Romanus and Brian Backer, were less successful, but are still acting today, and also nailed their characters in the movie. (Although Romanus looked much too old to be in high school). In fact, just about everyone in the film nailed his character. The sense that "I know that guy" pervades the viewing experience. The casting was so accurate that the people who played friends and cliques in the film formed the same bonds and hung out with the same people when the camera wasn't rolling.

The author, Cameron Crowe, went on to become a hot-shot Hollywood director, as we all know.

Not many people realize that Fast Times was a true story. Crowe was a genuine wunderkind who was already a successful writer while still in his mid teens. (The story of his early life is re-told in fictionalized form in another of his movies, Almost Famous.) When he was in his twenties, Crowe found himself in the unique position of being both a successful author and a boy who looked young enough to go back to high school. So he decided that he would go back to high school and write about it objectively. He posed as a student and relived his senior year, all the while recording precisely accurate dialogue and incorporating real people into his story.

The film version loses that first person strain of the narrative. There is no character who represents Crowe as the detached observer. On the surface, it appears simply to be another fictional high school movie, but it differs from most of them in that the characters are portrayed just as Crowe encountered them, and are therefore completely real people living their actual experiences. It didn't duck any hard issues: sex, nudity, abortion, masturbation, hustling, drugs, telling it all as it was. On the other hand, the story has a delightful warmth and humanity to it. The masturbation scene is not played for sensationalism or high farce, but as a very real and mortifying moment when a guy is caught jerking off, when the very woman he is fantasizing about barges through the unlocked bathroom door. The two sex scenes with JJL are extraordinarily close to the bone, portraying the first two sexual experiences of a very young, very naive teen.

As in all of Cameron Crowe's best writing, the film is about finding and maintaining one's optimism and humanity in some kind of a social milieu that tends to suppress that very humanity, whether it is big-time sports (Jerry Maguire), big-time rock (Almost Famous), or high school. In the end, the most human, most naive, nicest characters end up better off than they were, not in some unrealistic way, but in the sense of finding out that they can endure without compromising themselves.


Phoebe Cates showed her breasts in a daylight fantasy scene in which she came out of the pool and stripped off her top. Jennifer Jason Leigh's breast are seen in two sex scenes, the second of which also shows the side of her hips (She's lying down, naked in good light,  but her leg is raised to hide her pubic area.)

The only principal involved with the film who didn't go on to a socko Hollywood career was director Amy Heckerling. She is still working, and is still considered competent by the industry, but she never lived up to the high promise she demonstrated with Fast Times when she was only 28, although she had another solid success with Clueless in 1995. The rest of her post-Ridgemont career looks like this:

As you can see, she's directed only two movies in the last 12 years, and only one was a winner, or at least not a "Loser". All in all, most of us would kill to have her career, but it all has to be considered a disappointment after a beginning in which she created the official generational anthem for the tail-end of the baby boomer generation. Sure, she had a great cast and Crowe's accurate script in Fast Times, but she also made the right choices consistently, improvised artfully, participated in the brilliant casting process, and got the right music in the background.

The DVD includes a new interview with the ancient Ray Walston, who plays the history teacher in the film (one of the very few adults seen in the story). Walston notes that his career in show business has encompassed something like 75 years, the last 45 of them in movies, and in all those years he's done about four of five things that he's truly proud to have been a part of. Fast Times is one of them.

By the way, if you started your film career at age 43, would you expect to keep doing it for another 45 years? Walston is a great inspiration to people who begin new careers in mid-life.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Commentary by director Amy Heckerling & screenwriter Cameron Crowe

  • Production notes

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Documentary: Reliving Our Fast Times At Ridgemont High

  • Music Highlights

  • Hangouts of Ridgemont High: A Video Map

And your favorite Martian is not such a bad film critic, either. I agree with his assessment. If you were born in the decade and a half from 1960 to 1975, and especially if you were born between 1962 and 1964, this film is must viewing. In fact, it is worthwhile viewing if you ever went to high school at any time and remember how the social order worked, because the interaction doesn't change much over the years.

Oh, yeah, the film is a comedy. And it's funny, with several sequences which will make you laugh out loud. Is there any man alive who doesn't remember Cates using a carrot and talking all-too-loud when she was teaching Leigh how to give a blow job -  while they ate lunch in the school cafeteria and the entire school listened in?

The DVD features full-length commentary and recent interviews with the cast and crew, all of which are worth listening to.

Six words -  Learn it, know it, live it.

Tuna's notes in yellow:

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is one of the absolute classic teen films in the vein of Animal House, American Graffiti, American Pie, etc. It features Sean Penn's most recognizable character, and arguably his best performance.


Phoebe Cates was shy about showing her breasts, but Jennifer Jason Lee was completely comfortable with her nudity, and in fact wanted to go further. The original pool room sex scene was much more explicit, and included male full frontal nudity, but the studio censored it to save the MPAA the trouble. It is a shame this additional footage has never been made available.

The Critics Vote

  • 4/5

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.0/10


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B (both reviewers). Scoop says, "The rare comedy film that simply tells it like it is. Sean Penn created one of the 100 most memorable characters in film history. Two sexy young girls got naked. It's funny and almost uncomfortably real. What's not to like? Learn it, know it, live it."  Tuna says, "Both funny and honest, with a great young cast, most of whom went on to huge careers."

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