“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.” –Jeff Spicoli
While Fast Times at Ridgemont High is an ensemble teen drama, it’s often summed up as “that movie with Sean Penn as the stoner.” That’s fair. In my opinion, Sean Penn’s portrayal of sunburned, clueless, stoned-out-of-his-mind Jeff Spicoli is the one shining jewel in this rusty crown of a movie. He doesn’t have to say anything; his blank expression is enough to make us laugh and remember that kid in high school our parents prayed we would never become best friends with.
The movie is a “slice of life” of a high school in the ‘80s. It has some striking similarities to Napoleon Dynamite (2004). There’s an outcast with a crush, a cocky mentor who could “throw a football over them mountains,” and a girl whose insecurity probably means she drinks skim milk…even though she could be drinking whole if she wanted to.
Napoleon Dynamite is about friendship. Yeah, there’s a soul mate out there somewhere for Napoleon, but right now he’s gonna enjoy dancing with Deb, playing tetherball, and shopping for wigs with Pedro. In Fast Times, however, having sex and getting high smother any redeeming friendships. It’s draining to watch. Less nudity and more footsie with LaFawnduh, please.
A highlight of Fast Times at Ridgemont High was seeing actors and actresses in their stardom infancy, notably Nicolas Cage in his role as “Brad’s Bud.” (At that time, he was still going by his birth name Nicolas Coppola. Later he decided that he didn’t want the connection with his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola, to distract from his acting career.) Nicolas was only 17 years old during the filming of Fast Times, so the restricted amount of daily hours he was allowed to work are probably to blame for the fact that he didn’t land a bigger role. Fortunately, he made up for it next year in Valley Girl.
And then we come back to Sean Penn. After watching him in I Am Sam, The Tree of Life, and – my personal favorite – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s immensely hard to believe the skinny blonde-haired kid onscreen is the same person. My, my, a lot has changed since the ‘80s. In a Jimmy Kimmel interview, Kimmel asked Penn, “So your kids have seen [Fast Times at Ridgemont High]? That must be crazy to see your dad playing that character.” Penn replied, “It was crazy for me to see their dad playing that character.” Makes me wonder how an aged Jeff Spicoli would recall his high school years, or if he’d be able to remember them at all. Now there’s a sequel idea: Slow Times at Ridgemont Haven. The old gang is back together and asking for trouble at their local assisted living facility!
The Fast Times yarn could have used a little more of Napoleon Dynamite’s restraint and simplicity. Remember the scene where Napoleon says to Uncle Rico, “Grandma just called and said you’re supposed to go home”? There came a point where I wanted to say that to every student at Ridgemont High.