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Cruel Intentions

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Cruel Intentions

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe
Director: Roger Kumble
Rated: R
RunTime: 90 Minutes
Release Date: March 1999
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

During the Renaissance, the Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a classic handbook, "The Prince," full of advice to rulers of Italian city-states on how to seize and maintain power. He also served as adviser to some of the potentates of his time. If he were alive today in America, his occupation would be obvious: he would have been hired on to President Clinton's legal staff to tell the chief executive how to maintain his hold on government. He might later write a tell-all book detailing precisely how the president seduced that woman. Or was it the other way around? Now that, rather than any political treatise, would be a best-seller. If he were a screenwriter, though, ol' Nick might use his inside knowledge of presidential dalliance to dabble with a racy plot about a two lusty villains--one who gets his jollies from seducing and abandoning members of the female sex, the other from egging him on to do just that. The story would look like Christopher Hampton's hit stage play, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" which was effectively adapted to the screen ten years ago by Stephen Frears, called "Dangerous Liaisons." "Cruel Intentions" is obviously inspired by that story.

In "Dangerous Liaisons" the remarkable Glenn Close performed in the role of The Marquise de Merteuil, a bitch if ever there was one, a woman determined to crush the spirit of young women brazen enough to fall in love. She had a great lover herself, but when he abandoned her to marry the innocent Cecile (Uma Thurman), she assigned the Vicomte de Valmont (played by John Malkovich) to seduce her before she could present herself to her husband as a virgin. But the Vicomte instead becomes interested in the married and virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is ironically fired by the very evil in the Vicomte and decides to find out what it means to become a bad girl. Naturally the Vicomte and the Madame fall in love.

In writing and directing "Cruel Intentions," Roger Kumble ("Dumb & Dumber," "Kingpin," "National Lampoon's Senior Trip") targets a younger audience, changing the locale from the boudoirs of France to the elegant old houses around New York's Central Park. More important, he cuts the age of the characters, putting them in a fancy prep school for teenagers. His reasoning--according to the production notes- -is that high-school kids are a mischievous lot and so a plot of Machiavellian dimensions would not be unusual for the preppy set.

Unfortunately that very reasoning is the picture's flaw. While any audience could take the sinister machinations of Glenn Close and John Malkovich seriously, especially when pitted against the innocence of folks played by Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer, we have a hard time locating any real profundity in the young brats of "Cruel Intentions." The movie intends to be like an 18th century comedy of manners with tragic undertones. Instead, while it possesses an effectively amusing initial half, Kumble's attempt to mine anguish of tragic proportions becomes no more than a display of sappy melodrama.

The story takes shape when Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) loses her boy friend Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas) to the innocent Cecile (Selma Blair). To get revenge on Ronald, she becomes determined to turn her successful competitor into a slut. He advises Cecile to sleep with as many boys as she can, assigns her step-brother Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) to deflower her, and to inflict damage on Sebastian as well, he bets him that he cannot seduce the lovely and virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon).

Once the acrid workings of conspiracy give way to the honeyed charm of love, the film loses its edge. Sarah Michelle Gellar, best known for her TV series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is hardly the right choice for a Lady Macbeth, given her irritatingly nasal voice and all-too-precious features. She tries to pass herself off as a veritable monster but comes across more as a kewpie doll that would perpetually whine "hug me." For his part Ryan Phillippe as the scheming Sebastian Valmont looks more like a super-senior too effete to play soccer with his fellows, a guy not too likely to charm today's teenage women--who may not know how to read but who should be able to see right through his faux allure. The one principal winner in the picture is Reese Witherspoon as Annette, the headmaster's daughter, who had written an article in Seventeen Magazine about her intention to stay pure until she marries her boyfriend. Her performance is perfectly natural, believable, and affecting.

We do come away with the awareness that Kathryn and Sebastian plot mayhem against the young women in the story because of the attraction, even adoration, that they have for each other, a fascination they appear unable or unwilling to declare. When love is repressed, it may come out in perverse ways; thus, the diabolic schemes of the two frustrated lovers. By the somber conclusion of the story we are not moved by a sense of tragedy but by a feeling that we've witnessed fun and games of two silly but smart teens, both of whom confront a more serious justice than they deserve. A suspension from school for a week would seem more to the point.

The work is filmed splendidly in some of Manhattan's posher areas around Central Park, home to bluebloods and nouveau-riches alike--effectively transplanting 18th Century French aristocracy to the Big Apple.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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