Call this the teenage version of Dangerous Liaisons
Starring: Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Joshua Jackson, and Sean Patrick Thomas
Screenplay: Roger Kumble, suggested by "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Choderlos de Laclos
Producers: Neal H. Moritz
Director: Roger Kumble
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language, nudity, and drug use.
At the time of this writing, I am in the age range for this film's target audience. Most other critics you will find are not in this range, but in fact are into their thirties or fourties, having already experienced the teen films from the 60s and 70s. My guess is that in the 60s and 70s, those teen films were considered terrific by those same critics who will now shun films aimed at teenage audiences. It's with films like Cruel Intentions when the average viewer must instead turn to a critic of the age of the target audience.
As a critic in the age group, I enjoyed it immensely. Save a rather trite ending, the film is sheer entertainment from start to finish, and not of the guilty pleasure type. The film is smart, inquisitive, and appropriate. After all, the story of moral decay is perfect for our 90s society. Here is a film that adults will find offensive, in that it portrays teenagers as sexual deviants with no emotional control. And yet, that is exactly how the adults act in the film--they are stand-offish, watching in horror at the degeneration of the 90s teens. One could say that the film is quite an accurate depiction of our "immoral" decade.
Morals change from generation to generation--soon enough, watching someone die live on television may seem like a natural form of entertainment. Even if we don't reach those depths of moral depravity, we will come to terms with our basic sexuality, and talk about it openly and freely. Or that's what Hollywood would like us to believe. Of course, Hollywood also wants us to believe that originality is some mortal sin, and Cruel Intentions basically thrives on unoriginality. Does that make it a bad film? Absolutely not. It's a mature and often shocking look at a realistic situation, played up as a fantasy tale.
Cruel Intentions is essentially Dangerous Liaisons for the teenage audience, and yet not once throughout the film did I care. The film achieves a sense of surrealism, where teenagers can sometimes act more evil than adults. It's a toned-down version of In the Company of Men mixed with a more raw version of Dangerous Liaisons. The film will seem familiar to those who have seen the 1988 version of the stage play from which it was adapted, but it should not be discredited simply because of this fact.
The film centers around Sebastien Valmont (Ryan Phillipe) and his stepsister Kathryn Merteuil-Valmont (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Both live together, away from their divorced parents, supported by a rich inheritance. Sebastien and Kathryn love to play, but not in the "it's-just-for-fun" way. They love to dehumanize other people, and concur them as sexual conquests. It's more than a game, however. It's a challenge of one-upsmanship. Whatever occurs in the bed, the two remain emotionally isolated from their prospective conquests, as to prevent falling in love.
After humiliating a therapist's daughter with nude pictures of her posted on the Internet (his reasoning: she was charging too much), Sebastien admits that he is tired of sleeping with these insipid debutantes. He wants a challenge worthy of his talents, and he finds one in Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). Annette strongly believes in abstaining from sex before love, and Kathryn agrees that she is a perfect victim. In fact, Kathryn is sure that she will prevail, and bets that if Sebastien doesn't get Annette into bed, she gets his classic Porsche. If he does succeed, he can have the one thing he's always wanted: Kathryn.
The stage is set, and yet the film is not content on just following these two around throughout the entire film. Kathryn has her own problems: her boyfriend dumped her for the more innocent Cecile (Selma Blair), a new student at the prestigious school where both Sebastien and Kathryn attend. Kathryn asks Sebastien to ruin Cecile's innocence, thus destroying their relationship.
Certainly, when you compare this version of Dangerous Liaisons to the 1988 version, it's obvious which is superior. This is far less intellectual and psychological than its predecessor, but Cruel Intentions does have some surprising elements that are lacking from most of the recent teenage-angst films. First and foremost, there is an incredible amount of sexual tension that is derived completely from verbal and physical contact. I've heard many claim this to be soft porn, but they have misjudged the film--there is hardly any nudity present in the film itself. However, there are scenes of pure eroticism, mostly between Kathryn and Sebastien. They have the best scenes, and one in particular is so stunningly simple that the heat on screen is virtually palpable. Surprisingly, they are both fully clothed, and all that is exchanged is a few words. It's this kind of passion that is lacking today in films, which go merely for exploitation instead of eroticism.
I have been and always will be a defendant of Ryan Phillipe. He's not just a pretty face, as he's shown with films like I Know What You Did Last Summer (in fact, Gellar and Phillipe were the two most interesting actors in that film) and 54. Here, he tries to recreate John Malkovich's performance and comes off quite successful. He's not merely imitating, but reinterpreting it. He's quite strong, and holds himself up very well. His attempts at humor always work, and his dramatic scenes are filled with sarcasm and wit. But as strong as he is, Sarah Michelle Gellar is as every bit as strong. Her "she-bitch" attitude is strong enough to support the film, though she's no Glenn Close. Reese Witherspoon, the most talented of this cast, develops what could have been a flat character into a three-dimensional one. Her strong performance merely enhances that she is the best young actress to emerge out of Hollywood in years. Selma Blair is the weakest link here, with an over-the-top and ridiculous performance that seems mostly out of place. Her kiss with Gellar, however, is strong on passion, which is amazing to behold. Joshua Jackson, the talented young actor mostly known for Dawson's Creek and Urban Legend, is virtually wasted here as the gay friend. Also from Urban Legend is Tara Reid, in a quick and almost pointless performance. Still, the film revolves around the main three actors, and they are all terrific.
Director/writer Roger Kumble handles the material with assuredness, especially in a visual sense. The film is always beautiful to watch, filled with attractive actors and bright, vibrant colors. From a directorial perspective, Kumble succeeds on every level, but as a writer, he needs a little help. His ending, in particular, is disappointing, ruining the disturbing psychological aspect of the original story. Fortunately, much of the film is entertaining enough to forgive the ending of its shortcomings. What isn't forgiveable is the inclusion of two characters: the gay friend and the African-American cello teacher. Neither are handled well, and both come across as cliches. The film is also riddled with offensive remarks, though in this case, they tend to be warranted. Both main characters are so despicable that their comments on homosexuality and race are humorous instead of offensive. It's wicked, but don't take it too seriously.
Cruel Intentions is rated R for strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language, nudity, and drug use. The material present here is suitable for the R rating, especially the ample amount of sexual dialogue, which is pervasive throughout the film. It's aimed at the teenage crowd, and that's who will be attending it. However, if you are out of the target range, don't let that keep you from this. It's the Wild Things of 1999. It's trashy, it knows it is, and it has fun with it. Go and have fun watching it.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie