I’m not exactly sure how I found a solid amount of enjoyment in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It really isn’t consistently funny when Sean Penn is off screen, and the movie is limited in terms of its dramatic strength. I think it’s the performances that ultimately save this film. This film features multiple actors who have since become big names in the industry, such as Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage. Of the three, Sean Penn obviously has the biggest role in this film. He creates one of the most memorable stoner characters ever in surfer dude Jeff Spicoli. Another performance I would like to recognize is Robert Romanus, who plays Mike Damone. He, like Penn, creates an iconic character; however, unlike Penn, his performance is the one that finds the best mix of drama and comedy.
The movie follows several students during the school year at Ridgemont High School. These students include Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), Brad (Judge Reinhold), and Linda (Phoebe Cates). The movie also features Ray Walston in a downright hilarious performance as the up-tight history teacher named Mr. Hand. All of these characters’ stories, along with Spicoli and Romanus, are eventually weaved together at one point or another. But the film really isn’t about a story; it’s simply just an account of a handful of students going through a year of school.
It is hard to overlook the influence that this film has had on modern cinema. With more and more high school stoner comedies coming out these days, the comparisons are inevitable. A lot of films in this genre are quite similar, but if they are done effectively, they can still be quite good. One of the most important things in these types of movies is the soundtrack. The music is great in this movie and it’s hard to deny the fact that the right choice of song can make a movie better and easier to watch.
With all that being said about the performances and the soundtrack, it is necessary to point out the film’s flaws as well. The funniest scenes in the movie are the ones between Jeff Spicoli and Mr. Hand, but, like I said before, when Penn isn’t on screen, the movie just isn’t funny on a consistent basis. It’s also limited in the dramatic department, and, for some reason, director Amy Heckerling decided to go way over the top with the sex scenes. They are shot with little taste and really add nothing to the characters. When these scenes are shot with professionalism and effectiveness, I am thinking Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, they add not only to the romance, but they add to the characters as well. This film has none of that.
The screenwriter for this film is Cameron Crowe, who has become a dynamo in the comedy-drama genre. He has created some of the best films in that department, such as Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. His writing talents are on display in this film, but I have a feeling that if he was also in the director’s chair, we would’ve gotten a better movie. All in all, this is a satisfactory film, which is one of those movies that fall into the category of being more influential than actually being very good.