I don't think anyone knew what was being unleashed when that bright young man slid into the living room in his briefs, lip syncing Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." Risky Business signaled the box office ascendance of one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, better known by his street name: Tom Cruise. In these post-Oprah's-couch days, it's hard to remember just how large he loomed for as long as he did, but his nascent star turn in this, one of cinema's seminal coming-of-age stories, reminds us that he was born to do what he does.
Cruise's onscreen persona has always radiated confidence, but we're so accustomed to it by now that it's refreshing to see it during a time when he wasn't a household name. There's a twinge of desperation to it here: an eagerness to please that hides a terrifying fear of failure and rejection. It fits his character, Joel Goodsen, like a glove. A disaffected teenager from the posh Chicago suburbs, Joel lives a life dominated by his control-freak parents and focused on the sole goal of getting into an Ivy League school. Failure is not an option, and you can sense the lad's soul screaming beneath his calm, passive face. When his folks go out of town for the weekend, he has a chance to engage in a little low-key rebellion... which spins wildly out of control with the arrival of a streetwise call girl (Rebecca De Mornay) on his front doorstep.
The basics anticipate John Hughes' teen comedies of a few years later, though the film lacks their sense of optimism and innocence. This is a remarkably cynical movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. Joel's anesthetized detachment runs straight into the ugly reality his parents have worked so hard to keep from him, a realty where people don't care what your SAT score is and bad things happen even after you get accepted to Princeton. Writer/director Paul Brickman underlines a quiet despair beneath his satirical surface, a despair that can't be undone by the ostensibly happy ending. Success is measured in very narrow, materialistic terms in this world, with creature comforts arriving at the expense of real meaning. Victory comes only by accepting the system as it stands; rebellion is futile and the status quo delivers nothing but cold possessions in an empty house. Joel is wise enough to recognize how horrid that situation is, but lacks the cleverness to really break out of it. At best, his experiences put him ahead of the curve, giving him an edge over his peers that may allow him to survive. But the things his soul truly hungers for? They can't be found here and he silently seethes against that fundamental injustice.
That brings a bitter edge to an already stellar coming-of-age comedy. Its jabs at peer pressure and parental idiocy are well-worn, but carry a sting that few other movies can match. Similarly, its sexuality is undeniable, but comes from a place of maturity. It doesn't view copulation as the end all and the be all the way other teen comedies do, and quietly mocks the adolescent fools who claim otherwise. Sex here is meaningful and memorable: a respite from the darkness creeping in around it. It's also tinged with compromise, a commodity like any other, and while you can wrest a sense of fulfillment from its intimacy, you lose some of the awe that made it such a desirable state in the first place.
Such is the nature of growing up, a difficult path that Risky Business delivers with no false promises and no sugar-coated lies. Its bracing honesty found a true champion in the freshly minted star at its heart. Cruise went on to bigger, bolder and more varied projects, but only rarely did they contain such sad and funny insight as this one. You can see it in his go-for-broke insecurities here: reflecting the perfomer as much as the role, and which his subsequent success prevented him from ever duplicating. Thanks to him and his brilliant director, Risky Business felt like no teen movie that came before it; those that came after still owe it an immense debt.