From the desk of Lisa Galek:
In July of 1995, I had just turned 15 when my high school girlfriends suggested we go see the new movie Clueless. At the time, I didn’t know that writer/director Amy Heckerling had based the plot of her movie about a pretty, rich girl from Beverly Hills on Jane Austen’s Emma, but that didn’t matter. My friends and I might not have been “handsome, clever, and rich” like Emma or Cher, but we were absolutely delighted by the message and world of Clueless. My love for that movie has been growing ever since. In Jen Chaney’s book, As If!, mega fans can finally learn all the behind the scenes details about what some folks believe to be the greatest Austen film adaptation of all time. (My apologies to Colin Firth.)
As you’ll see right there in the title, As If! is an “oral history” of Clueless. Basically, that just means that the author has collected interviews with the main cast and crew and patched them together into a readable order. She begins at the beginning, explaining how Amy Heckerling wrote the movie and managed to get backing from Paramount. The longer, mid-section of the book focuses on the day-to-day making of the movie during the two-and-a-half month shooting schedule. The author ends with various reflections on how Clueless became such a pop culture phenomenon and the ways the movie changed fashion, language, and the girl-centric story telling for the better. You can preview the basic style of the book by checking out this article Jen Chaney wrote for Vulture about the Val Party Scene.
There are some truly interesting bits in here. The author includes stories about the studios that passed on Clueless (only to really, really regret that later) and the casting process (if things had gone differently, Reese Witherspoon or Angelina Jolie might have been explaining that Amber was “a full-on Monet”). There are scene-by-scene breakdowns of what filming was like. Did you know The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were drunk during Cher and Christian’s first date? And that Donald Faison actually shaved the top of his head at the Val party? Or that the guy who mugs Cher (and ruins her Alaïa dress) was cast only a few hours before filming that scene? Yup, it’s all true and in the book.
One thing you’ll notice pretty quickly is that the making of Clueless wasn’t plagued with many difficulties and issues. Sure, Amy Hecklering did have trouble getting a studio to finance the film, but once that was done, the day-to-day production ran really smoothly. In fact, one of the executives from Paramount mentioned that “she could not extract many book-worthy anecdotes from her memory banks.” This is, obviously, very good news for the cast and crew, but kind of bad news for anyone looking to read a interesting and engaging account of a beloved movie.
The major problem with this book is that it feels like a bunch of anecdotes that have been pieced together. The whole thing is missing an overall narrative that might draw a reader in. There is hardly any drama or conflict. There are no obstacles or high stakes the cast and crew must overcome. Though there are hints that Alicia Silverstone might have been just the tiniest bit of a diva (she snapped at a musician who mispronounced her name and didn’t spend a whole lot of time getting to know minor actors on set), it’s all easily explained away as a young girl who is tired and overworked as she anchors her first movie. For the most part, the production is smooth, the actors are happy, and everything is golden and happy as sunny California.
On top of not having a strong narrative pull, the book is long. At a little over 300 pages, this is a very exhaustive history of Clueless and it ends up feeling just like that—exhausting. The author does touch on some really interesting tidbits here and there (especially involving the creative moments on set), but overall, most of the cast and crew either can’t recall much about a problem-free day of filming 20 years ago or there really isn’t anything interesting to share. I absolutely love Clueless and was excited to read this book, but it took me an entire week to get through the entire thing because some of these sections just dragged so much.
That said, there were some bright moments in the book—especially, at the beginning and end. The author reflects on what teen movies were like before Clueless came out and why studios were reluctant to put out a movie about an adorable, rich girl who might seem hard to relate to. She gives some brief overview of the ties with Jane Austen and Amy Heckerling explains how and why she decided to work Emma into the plot of Clueless. The end of the book also reflects on how Clueless was able to succeed in a world where studios are generally unwilling to finance movies based around female characters. These sections featured less interview excerpts and more social and cultural commentary from the author, which leads me to believe the book might have been stronger and more engaging if she had done more of the writing and significantly cut the interviews.
Should you read this book? That very much depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re a Clueless obsessive or someone who needs a whole lot of information on this 1995 movie, then you will absolutely love this book. If you’re more of a casual fan—sure you own Clueless on DVD and you’ve definitely muttered “whatever” while flashing a W-sign with your fingers—it really is just information overload. Janeites also won’t find much to feed their love of Austen. Without a narrative arc or really any high stakes to hold the story together, this truly is just a series of mini stories, most of which won’t add to your enjoyment of an already amazing movie.
3.5 out of 5 stars
As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling, and the Cast, the and Crew, by Jen Chaney
Trade paperback & eBook (336) pages
Cover image courtesy of Touchstone © 2015; text Lisa Galek © 2015, Austenprose.com
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”