Working From Home in Risky Business

The moment when Tom Cruise—his skinny boy legs barely draped over by a pink shirt and the odd flash of white briefs—dances and sings to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” has become so iconic, excerpted and divorced from its context for so long, that the movie surrounding it has been rendered nearly irrelevant.

Risky Business? Oh yeah. That’s the one where Cruise does the underwear thing.

As instantly recognizable as the scene is, and its near mythic standing as The Moment Tom Cruise Became a Movie Star, it is probably the least interesting thing about the film it has eclipsed. The 1983 feature, written and directed by Paul Brickman (whose credits are sparse, making this film his most meaningful cinematic contribution), stars Cruise as Joel Goodson, a high school senior on the cusp of attending college. When his parents head out of town to visit a sick relative, they leave him in charge of their suburban Chicago upper-middle class home. The sexually frustrated, academically anxious Joel deviates almost immediately from the upstanding morality suggested by his surname, as he invites a classy prostitute, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), over to his empty house for a tryst.

When he can’t pay, she swipes his mother’s hoity-toity glass egg. Joel pursues Lana into the city, and is threatened by her pimp, Guido (Joe Pantoliano). Eventually, he accidentally puts his father’s Porsche into Lake Michigan, and in order to fix it, he and Lana turn his Highland Park micro-mansion into a one-night brothel. When Joel returns the next morning, after being lured out with Lana, who professes her desire to make love to him on a real train, he finds every stick of furniture in the house missing. Guido has made off with it, but returns the contents of the house in exchange for most of the money Joel’s scheme brought in. Joel’s parents return home, he meets Lana for dinner, and is apparently headed to Princeton after having impressed the school’s admissions officer Rutherford (Richard Masur), who visited the Goodson home and left a very satisfied customer.  

The movie is ludicrous. Its theatrical, unbelievable premise and execution, paired with an airy Tangerine Dream score, situate it firmly in 1983. On one level, it is a movie of its moment. But on another, it is an entrepreneur’s coming-of-age story, as Joel becomes master of his domain through making his home into a place of self-actualization, both in business and sex. Early in the film, Joel is a boy home alone, playing with his toys. By its end, he is a 1980s man through and through, primed and ready to dominate in Reagan’s America.

It is Joel’s boyhood on display in the film’s most famous scene. The first shot of the scene—wherein Cruise’s white socks slick him across the hardwood floor—is its most iconic, and strongly choreographed, moment. As it continues, Joel’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp loses the staginess of its first move; Brickman’s camera, stationary as Joel slides into frame, starts to wobble, going handheld to follow Joel as he jumps on the furniture, picks up a candlestick and uses it as a pretend microphone. Joel’s imagination only extends so far, and he can’t even finish the song before flopping on one of the couches facedown, kicking his legs in mock electrocution, before rolling over and kicking them up in the air like a turtle on its back. He is playing. He doesn’t have to finish what he starts.

It’s Joel’s inability to, ahem, finish, that pushes him to pull Lana’s number from the classified ads and invite her over. Joel has two driving interests in the film—to succeed in business without really trying, and to get laid. His friends are no help: Barry (Bronson Pinchot) is his nerdy entrepreneurial buddy who’s rendered sexless by his dogged determination to invent a money-making product. Miles (Curtis Armstrong) is a pretentious snob who insists he would never have to pay for it, but gets cheap thrills out of dialing a hooker on Joel’s behalf. And, worst of all, Glenn (Raphael Sbarge)—knowing Joel’s parents are out of town—who asks to “borrow” a room for a quickie with his girlfriend, moaning in pleasure while Joel sits at the kitchen table.

Later that night, Joel lies awake in his bed, trying to conjure up a masturbatory fantasy that will let him drift off to sleep, focus on his school work, tame his ever-present sexual pull. He gets going, but imagines a phalanx of police, his parents, teachers, and community leaders surrounding the house, threatening to throw him in jail if he continues. Home becomes a place where sex cannot exist.

Enter Lana, whose arrival in the Goodson home in the dark of night is punctuated by a swell of synth-heavy Tangerine Dream (a far cry from “that old time rock ‘n’ roll”) and, as she advances on Joel, a gust of torrential wind that flings open a pair of French doors, blowing in a swirling tornado of autumn leaves. Joel and Lana conquer the home, taking their act to the wooden stairs and a chair in the dining room. In the space of one torrid night, Joel has gone from a naïf weakly fantasizing about a woman showering in the house next door, to a sex god capable of working all hours.

Like any coming-of-age story, the film is about push-and-pull. The journey from kidhood to adulthood is never a linear one (usually it’s two steps forward, one step back), and Lana’s theft of the fancy glass egg destabilizes Joel’s newfound control of the home. Unlike other coming-of-age stories, however, there will be no physical journey. Joel will realize his masculinity fully inside the house. His trip to the city to confront Lana only sends him back to his own turf, as he evades the pursuing Guido in a bit of fancy Porsche driving, heading home. Though Lana has her own apartment in the city, she will take up residence in the Goodson house to hide out from her angry, possessive pimp.

The naive Joel attempts to domesticate Lana, who makes him breakfast, like any dutiful homebound housewife would in a decade defined by ascendant conservatism. In the Goodson home it’s morning in America, and there are pancakes and orange juice on the table. However, De Mornay’s caustic performance lets on that she is always holding something back, more playacting the role of lady of the house than feeling it for real.

After a series of mishaps sends the beloved Porsche rolling into Lake Michigan, the entrepreneurial spirit is thrust upon Joel, with the prodding of Lana functioning as no small motivator. The promise of easy money turns Joel into an icon of salesmanship, with Cruise donning a pair of Jack Nicholson sunglasses and a gray blazer, setting to work persuading his high school pals to fork over their hard-earned cash for a night in the newly-erected VIP lounge at the Goodson estate.

During the brothel sequence, the home is a far cry from the film’s early depiction of it as a playground for a boy luxuriating in the novelty of his parents’ absence. Now, it is a living, humming organism for orgasm, with Joel (frequently wearing his sunglasses inside) playing the role of Junior Hugh Hefner. Lana’s working girls move the high school boys in and out of the house’s many rooms, suggesting the ease with which a seemingly ordinary suburban home can become something entirely different. It is an extreme home makeover, Sexually Liberated Edition. At the film’s outset, Joel couldn’t even get himself off without feeling like the police were going to kick in his door. Now, he is the proprietor of a full on suburban bacchanal, a master of the universe in the sexual industrial complex, entirely staged within the home his parents left in his care.

The film’s title originates from a lyric in a Talking Heads song called “Swamp,” which emanates from the house’s sound system during the brothel scene. It is a pairing of the film’s twin concerns, the risky sexuality and drive for business success that rattle around in Joel’s head(s) throughout the movie.

In the midst of the party, Lana demands that Joel take her to make love on a train. The request seems like a non-sequitur, a line of dialogue that has the air of reverse engineering—Brickman had an idea for a train sequence set to the pounding beat of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and needed a line of dialogue to get them there.

It works. Aboard one of Chicago’s elevated trains, Lana and Joel wait for the other passengers to disembark, so they have the train to themselves. As they wait, Collins’ dramatic tempo shifts, from quiet menace to explosive fury, make this, not Bob Seger, the defining musical moment of the film. This is the emotional climax of the film as Joel, he of the sexual and financial conquest of the home, extends his dominion into the public space. Before Joel and Lana can christen the train car, Joel physically removes a passenger, presumably one of the city’s many homeless men. In 1983, Joel’s realization of his masculinity disregards the poverty-stricken wretches who impede his sexual release. The passenger has no home, no place in the world, because men like the one Joel is becoming look up and see signs that scream, as another iconic 1983 film promised, “The World is Yours.” For Joel, home is now everywhere.

And yet, the train excursion may be a pretext to get Joel out of the house so Guido can take everything that isn’t nailed down away from him. This is where the film undermines Joel’s progression towards the certainty of control of his domestic space. Though Joel and his pals buy back the furniture and return it moments before his parents get back, and he mostly gets away with the whole scheme, something still isn’t right.

In the end, there is the lingering doubt that Joel is not as in control of his masculinity as he thinks he is. The sexual conquest of the domestic space that allowed him to realize his entrepreneurial potential has perhaps been predicated on Lana’s deceptive submission, rather than Joel’s true mastery. When Joel asks her if she played a role in Guido’s scheme, she denies it, but is not entirely convincing. In addition, the spoils of Joel’s business exploits have mostly been surrendered to Guido, who proves himself to be the better, more savvy capitalist. He rides away, smirking from the back of the moving truck, counting the stack of bills he nets from the resale of the furniture.

In the middle part of the film, Joel is sitting in his room at his desk, listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” on his sound system. Lana enters, and sits on his bed. It is the only time they are together in his room, the site of his failed attempts at masturbation earlier in the film. As they sit together, Bruce sings a line that sits at the intersection of the fundamental meaning of that 1980 hit song and Risky Business itself: “Everybody needs a place to rest / Everybody wants to have a home.” For much of this film, Joel thinks he has found his home—a place where he controls the sexual dynamics, and a place where he becomes a captain of industry. In its final moments, it is clear that Joel still has a lot to learn. But, as Cruise’s final voice over reminds us, Joel made $8,000 in one night.  

He’s going to be just fine, no matter where he lives.