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Thirteen years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High, writer/director Amy Heckerling returns to high school, and she’s lost none of her empathy for the adolescent experience. Not that Clueless has anything to do with what MTV archly calls the real world: After all, it’s both set in the gilded cage of Beverly Hills High School and loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Humane and even genteel under all the trendy slang, this is not exactly Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Actually, both Clueless and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School share a significant attribute: a heroine whose blithe self-assurance surpasses that of mere mortal teen-agers. Though pretty in the classic California-girl mode, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher proves more than a rock-video teen queen. An expert on fashion and—in emulation of her hard-driving attorney father—negotiation, the almost-16-year-old L.A. aristocrat is also altruistic. Her specialty is the “makeover” of the sartorially impaired, including teacher Miss Geist (associate producer Twink Caplan) and transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy). These makeovers are not always undertaken without self-interest—Cher hopes that the newly put-together Miss Geist will distract debate teacher Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) from her lackluster performance in his class—but compared to the rich blondes in most teen comedies, Cher is a philanthropist. Asked in debate class to make a case for unlimited immigration, she compares it to a garden party: If some people who didn’t RSVP appear anyway, the gracious hostess doesn’t turn them away.

Cher is pampered, superficial, and supremely ignorant of the world outside Beverly Hills; when first introduced, selecting that day’s outfit with the help of a computer program, she seems merely the older, female equivalent of Richie Rich. Staying faithful to Emma‘s theme, however, Heckerling undertakes the story of a moral education; Clueless demonstrates to us (and to Cher) that its supremely poised heroine is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Cher’s plan to pair Tai and Elton (one of the few characters who retains a name from the novel) doesn’t unfold as planned, and Cher herself falls in love with the wrong guy—not once, but twice. Most wrenchingly of all, she has to re-evaluate her disdain for her “ex-stepbrother” Josh (Paul Rudd), a Nietzsche-reading, socially conscious college student.

Although it’s the funniest Hollywood comedy released so far this year, Clueless is not a penetrating satire. Plenty of the details of Cher’s exalted existence don’t ring true, starting with her name. Her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), an African-American Cher with a hiphop boyfriend, is an unconvincing creation, as is the Tony Curtis-worshiping dreamboat who gets Cher to reconsider her ban on dating high-school boys (and who is glimpsed reading William Burroughs’ Junky). Nor does the heroine’s assured viewpoint on such subjects as Shakespeare, college-radio “crybaby music,” and boys in baggy pants mesh with her utter ignorance of Bosnia, Spartacus, and what to do at stop signs. (Rebuked for running one, an outraged Cher responds that “I totally paused.”)

Still, since Cher narrates her own story, she’s frequently given the benefit of Heckerling’s awareness. The director, in turn, shares in her creation’s giddy self-confidence and fundamental generosity, while the two meet in the film’s astute use of pop music, long a Heckerling specialty. (Here she favors glitter-rock and power-pop classics remade by contemporary alterna-rockers.) The result is the director’s smartest, best-sustained movie since Fast Times. She indulges some cheap plastic-surgery and liposuction gags, but Heckerling’s amiable lampoon wisely takes its cue from its protagonist’s virtues. For all her self-involved cluelessness, Cher is an American ideal: benevolent, well-meaning, and fun fun fun.

Like most mysteries, John Feldman’s Dead Funny provides a corpse, a murder weapon, and some flashbacks. It’s short on suspects, though, and the resolution may displease purists. But the film is supposed to be a comic subversion of the genre, so the real problem is the paucity of laughs.

This is the world premiere of the second feature by former Washingtonian Feldman, whose Alligator Eyes was well received at the Biograph several years ago. The writer/director and his collaborators have done an entirely respectable job by low-budget standards, and the cast of known-but-not-hot actors acquits itself well. Unfortunately, the film’s premise stubbornly remains in the student-film realm.

The victim is Reggie (Andrew McCarthy in the Eric Stoltz role), whose body is discovered in his part-time Manhattan apartment, impaled by a samurai sword; the discoverer is his girlfriend Vivian (Elizabeth Peña, who’s also in the predictable but capably executed Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, which opens this week). The two had staged a rambunctious “anniversary” party the night before, and Vivian can’t quite remember what happened. Her friend Louise (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles veteran Paige Turco) volunteers to help, but is more intent on getting drunk than solving the mystery. Later, Vivian’s women’s group shows up, but its members are so involved with their self-help agendas that they can’t even comprehend what’s happened.

Viewers shouldn’t have that problem. The film’s schema is complicated, but its implications are fairly obvious. Reggie had a weakness for practical jokes that was likely to have fatal consequences, and the pattern of the couple’s relationship—either scaring each other half to death or fighting bitterly and then having hot sex—has a dead-end quality. Since Vivian and Reggie aren’t very engaging and their foreplay is mostly tedious, the solution is of little interest. Restless moviegoers may be inclined to emulate Louise, and adjourn with a bottle to another room until it’s all over.

Grosse Fatigue, Michel Blanc’s comedy about the rigors of French fame, starts promisingly and ends winningly. In between, though, it’s all the thing can do to sputter impotently.

Blanc, seen here in such films as Ménage and Monsieur Hire, is better known in France, where his notoriety may have given Fatigue‘s original audience a more profound connection to its fundamental riff. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone not soon tiring of this tale of writer/director Michel Blanc (played by writer/director Michel Blanc) and his evil twin (Blanc too).

Based on an idea by Ménage director Bertrand Blier, the film briefly toys with the idea that its protagonist is having a breakdown. Blanc shows up at the Cannes Film Festival, demands the room occupied by Gerard Depardieu (this is the first of several Depardieu gags), and attempts to rape and rob starlets Mathilde May and Charlotte Gainsbourg (also played by themselves). With the help of his pal, actress Carole Bouquet (yeah, her too), Blanc tracks down the source of his problem: a nobody named Patrick, who looks exactly like Blanc and has been taking advantage of the resemblance to take advantage of people all over France.

As with Dead Funny, this seems an adequate premise for a short film, but at 84 minutes Fatigue is not short enough. Blanc tries to sustain interest with earthy gags (the fake Blanc judges a best-breasts contest, the real Blanc is threatened with rape in a holding cell), and commentary on the pseudoreligious significance of performers in contemporary society (a paralyzed man is cured by the touch of Bouquet, who’s also better known in France). By then, however, the fundamental joke is already exhausted.

There’s still one surprise, and it arrives with the appearance of Philippe Noiret. Strolling down the center of the Champs Élysées, Noiret delivers a lecture on inauthenticity that turns into a nonsensical but amusingly spirited attack on Hollywood. (This sequence also features a Hollywood refugee, although one who didn’t flee for artistic reasons.) Getting to this payoff, however, is not half the fun.