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Tom Cruise’s movie still has much to say

On the North Shore of Chicago, there are two homes firmly enmeshed in Hollywood lore. I’m likely not telling you anything you didn’t know. Both were in John Hughes films: There’s the “Home Alone” house of Winnetka, a landmark so well known it’s recognized by Google Maps and has its own Lego set; and there’s the Highland Park home of Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a glass sandwich by A. James Speyer, a Mies van der Rohe protégé and former Art Institute curator of 20th-century art.
As a teenager, though, I mostly wanted to live on Linden Avenue, also in Highland Park. This home wasn’t glass and steel, and I certainly didn’t know then that it was a real house in a fancy suburb of Chicago. It was more like the Brady homestead, but classier. Palatial, definitely. Big front lawn. Tons of green. Lots of shade. Porsche in the driveway.
Tom Cruise lived there in “Risky Business,” released 40 years ago this month.
Unless they saw Francis Ford Coppola’s semi-successful adaptation of “The Outsiders,” which came out a few months earlier, Americans had never heard of Tom Cruise yet. I didn’t sneak into “Risky Business” a couple of times that August (then once or twice more that September) because “Risky Business” starred some guy named Tom Cruise. Looking back, I doubt that I even snuck in so often because it was a teen sex fantasy.
“Risky Business,” then and now, is an indictment of privilege, and of somehow keeping the uglier world at bay long enough to buy your way into a kind of imperviousness. Except — and here’s what I think I responded to — it’s funny and confident and cool and all of its points about the spoils of capitalism get disguised inside a dream of opulence. It appears to affirm the early Reagan years as ripe for opportunity while, with a much deeper subtlety, undercuts places like the North Shore as chilly incubators of inequality.
No wonder, many decades later, Chicago prefers to see Hughes as its cultural heritage while, in those same conversations, the city rarely mentions Paul Brickman’s “Risky Business.”
After borrowing his father’s Porsche, Tom Cruise’s Joel tries to stop it from rolling into Lake Michigan in “Risky Business” in 1983. (Warner Bros.)
Ironically, 40 years ago, released the first week of August, made for a paltry $6 million and shot entirely in the Chicago area, “Risky Business” debuted at No. 3; the second most popular film was “Return of the Jedi,” still going after three months, while the first most popular was “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” written by John Hughes. “Risky Business” was more of a slow burn, a word-of-mouth hit that lingered into November. “Sixteen Candles,” Hughes’ directorial debut, started filming in Evanston and Highland Park that same summer, and later, after “Ferris Bueller,” “Home Alone,” “The Breakfast Club” and others, the North Shore became an American image of suburban comfort.
Minus, of course, the harshness revealed just a year earlier by “Risky Business” (and a few years earlier than that by “Ordinary People,” based and shot around Lake Forest).
Not that everyone saw this criticism of the Reagan Years in Year 2 of the Reagan Years. David Denby wrote in a New York Magazine review that “Risky Business” played as “openly corrupt.” Dave Kehr, closer to the truth as the film critic of the Chicago Reader (then later the Chicago Tribune), would likely have agreed with Denby, for different reasons: He wrote that the movie was “one of the finest film explorations of the end of innocence,” ending with a “complete corruption” of Cruise’s character and “one of the most bitter and plangent sequences allowed to pass in an American movie.” And that’s about the ending that played in theaters; Brickman’s original ending gets far darker.
My guess, if you haven’t seen “Risky Business” in years, little of this sounds right.
You remember Tom Cruise’s Ray-Ban sunglasses, his father’s Porsche falling into Lake Michigan (via Belmont Harbor) and certainly Cruise dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll.” (That famous sequence, producer Jon Avnet told the Highland Park News a decade ago, wasn’t shot on Linden but at a soundstage in Skokie.) At a glance, much of what we associate with the ‘80s teen sex comedy genre — gratuitous nudity, oversized bravado, Muddy Waters on the soundtrack — is still there. But in a brisk 99-minute runtime, there’s also criticism impossible to miss now, in 2023: the exploitation, the coldness, the white privilege, the little judgments (now called ”micro-aggressions”), the pressure to hold on to one’s class.
Still skeptical?
Brickman’s original title was “White Boys Off the Lake,” as he told former Chicago journalist Jake Malooley in a 2013 Salon article: “I was writing it in the time just after Reagan had taken office and everyone wanted to be little capitalists, get their MBAs and wear power suspenders.” If you haven’t seen “Risky Business” in a while, you might not remember that the anxiety at the heart of Cruise’s Joel Goodsen (sounds like “good son”) boils over once he leaves the North Shore to cruise Chicago and meet the world. The world is less excited, and his parents, out of town, are unable to pick up the pieces.
Rebecca De Mornay and Tom Cruise are Lana and Joel in the movie “Risky Business” in 1983. (Steve Schapiro/Warner Bros.)
If you don’t recall that, you probably don’t remember the movie, which features so much of Highland Park, was actually set in Glencoe. Not that it matters. Brickman grew up in Highland Park and partly made the film using high school memories of the town. Cruise, at 21, was mainlining a teenage naiveté that believes, regardless of wealth and standing, permanent records cannot be overcome. He does that little Tom Cruise thing of vibrating in agitation at times, without the veneer of gravitas he later used for court scenes in “A Few Good Men.” But his Joel is a good kid shouldering the weight of family expectations. There’s a sequence Brickman shoots through Joel’s eyes, as if he were a more benign serial killer in an ‘80s slasher flick. Instead of breathing heavy and holding a knife, Joel watches and listens as his parents remind him not to have a party while they are out of town, and not to mess with his father’s stereo, and make sure he has money, and do not forget to meet with that admissions guy from Princeton University.
Joel leaves his parents at O’Hare, then, home alone, messes with the stereo, throws parties, and, until it’s too late, appears to have forgotten all about the admission guy.
He also hires a sex worker named Lana, played by Rebecca De Mornay. Brickman is too thoughtful not to admire her cleverness. She’s as resilient as Joel and his Ivy League-headed friends. After Joel doesn’t have money to pay her, he goes to downtown Highland Park to cash a bond. When he returns, she’s already in Chicago — with his mother’s expensive crystal egg. There’s also a killer pimp (Joe Pantoliano) and a scheme to turn Joel’s home, for one night, into a bordello, as a way of making the money that Joel needs to repair a sunken Porsche. There are hookers with hearts of gold, and a bald love of materialism so enticing that, like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s hard to avoid being implicated in the shallowness.
As a teenager, I was enticed.
Most of the kids here do that movie thing — weaponized by Hughes — of sounding so confident, you could imagine basing your whole personality around their brand of brio. Joel is told often by his friends that “Sometimes you gotta say ‘What the (expletive).’” That sounded so, so wise in 1983. Of course, what I did not remember, until watching it again recently, was that everyone who says this either doesn’t believe it themselves (way too risky) or are so financially set that it’s easy for them to sound callously confident.
Little betrayals pile up for Joel.
He is kicked out of school. He manhandles a school nurse. The crystal egg cracks. The pimp forces him to buy the contents of his home back. His interview with Princeton becomes a joke. (“Looks like University of Illinois!” he laughs, embracing the truth.)
Except none of this is the truth.
If “Election” is our great cinematic high school film about the nature of politics, “Risky Business” is our great American high school “Chinatown,” about capitalism, only funnier. Brickman leaves his gut kick for the last moments. Joel does get into Princeton, having bought off the admissions guy with sex. He can’t quite believe this at first, though, as he realizes how the world really works, he gets it. And his future comes together. If you’re paying attention, his eyes go cold here. De Mornay’s Lana — whose future as a sex worker is considerably less certain — says they’ll make it big someday. Joel’s eyes offer nothing. He asks if everything bad that happened was a setup — was she working with her pimp all along? She hesitates, then says, no. It’s hard to believe her. Joel doesn’t.
At least, if you watch Brickman’s original ending (easily found on YouTube), he doesn’t seem to believe her. She curls into his lap and the camera frames them against Lake Michigan and those unsettled feelings you have are not settled. In the ending everyone saw, they walk through Lincoln Park and joke lightly with each other. Roll end credits.
Either way, the good kids of the North Shore head into the darkness of Chicago and find trouble, then emerge in one piece. No, even better! If anyone gets screwed over, it’s Lana, certain to be dropped by a now-less naive Joel. (In what epilogue would Joel bring her to his parents and actually jeopardize his promise?) Indeed, 40 years later, some details aside — Harvard MBAs earn $40,000 here and a $4 hot chocolate at the Drake is considered nuts — “Risky Business” makes way more sense. It’s the world that’s colder. Forty years later, that lovely colonial on Linden looks even less attainable than it did in 1983. Curtis Armstrong, who played Cruise’s best friend Miles, wrote in his 2017 memoir that it seems safe to say “‘Risky Business’ was the last time (Tom Cruise) was just Tom.”
The other day, I streamed the film on Paramount+. Before the end credits could begin, Paramount’s algorithm started budging me into another yet movie about North Shore teens who drive a nice car to Chicago and find trouble. It’s called “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and it’s the “Risky Business” we prefer today. All the success, none of the mess.



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