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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 MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

Before she found widespread recognition as TV's vampire-slaying heroine Buffy Summers, Sarah Michelle Gellar first made quite a different name for herself on the ABC's _All_My_Children_. In her two-and-a-half year, 1993-1995 stint on the daytime drama, the then-teenage Gellar made a striking impression as Kendall Hart Lang, a conniving hellraiser in her mid-20s. Kendall did everything she could to make her mother's (Susan Lucci's Erica Kane)--and just about everyone else's--life miserable: she made numerous attempts to seduce her stepfather; bedded his son, then cried rape at his father's hands; perjured herself on the witness stand and served a jail sentence--and this was all in her _first_ year. In the process, Gellar earned two Emmy nominations, one Emmy win, and a legion of loyal fans--including myself (though not Lucci, whose working relationship with Gellar reportedly mirrored their characters').

_Cruel_Intentions_ marks Gellar's big return to the type of role us original fans know and love the best--the no-holds-barred bitch--and the act has only gotten better with age. Now in her 20s herself (though now, ironically, playing a teen), Gellar exudes a captivatingly carniverous carnality as Kathryn Merteuil, a bored, insanely wealthy NY prep school student for whom selfish psychosexual mindgames provide the ultimate thrill. The film is at its tawdry best during her erotically-charged scenes with Ryan Phillippe, who stars as Sebastian Valmont, Kathryn's stepbrother and comrade in sin.

If the characters' surnames sound familiar, they should--writer-director Roger Kumble's film is a high-gloss, ultracontemporary, youth-infused revamp of Choderlo de Laclos's 1782 novel _Les_Liasons_Dangereuses_, whose most notable film adaptation was Stephen Frears's powerful 1988 _Dangerous_Liaisons_. Despite the '90s setting and adolescent characters, Kumble hews fairly close to his source material in telling the story of how Merteuil and Valmont wager on whether or not he can bed a virtuous girl (here, Reese Witherspoon's Annette Hargrove). Of course, with the change in time and age demographic come new wrinkles: while Sebastian's prize is indeed an encounter with Kathryn, hers is his vintage Jaguar car; and Annette initially catches the attention of Sebastian by writing a virginity manifesto in an issue of none other than _Seventeen_ magazine.

The latter touch is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as is a lot of _Cruel_Intentions_. The film's first hour fits Sony's description of the film as a "wicked comedy," offering some gleefully mean-spirited laughs as Kathryn and Sebastian not only plot Annette's ruin, but that of the innocent and naive (to put it mildly) Cecile (an effectively over-the-top Selma Blair, Zoe of the sitcom _Zoe,_Duncan,_Jack_&_Jane_), whose boyfriend rejected Kathryn. Kumble gives Gellar some choice catty lines, and one bold scene between her and Blair is bound to make viewers see the two WB stars in a whole new light.

But Kumble ultimately remains faithful to his tragic source material, and as the tale becomes more and more serious, the casting of the dramatically limited Phillippe becomes increasingly problematic. His natural woodenness is an adequate fit for Sebastian's cold detachment, but when the script inevitably has Sebastian fall for Annette, the pathetic Phillippe can't follow. No convincing expression, let alone emotion, registers on his blank face, making Sebastian's purported change wholly unbelievable. With this latest colorless performance (following _Playing_by_Heart_ and the disastrous _54_), former _One_Life_to_Live_ star Phillippe--unlike the ever-impressive Gellar--reinforces the stereotype that actors with a soap pedigree have no discernible acting talent. On the other hand, Witherspoon (Phillippe's real-life fiancee, as it is) holds up her end of the romance, radiating purity, vulnerability, and a crucial underlying strength. But without an at least equally involving match, her efforts are for naught, and the outcome of the story fails to make any profound impression.

Even if the dramatic pretensions of literary fidelity get the better of him in the end, it is Kumble's sense of humor that makes _Cruel_Intentions_ a step above recent then-to-now translations such as _William_Shakespeare's_Romeo_+_Juliet_ and _Great_Expectations_. While those two films got bogged down with the self-importance of their "radical" artistic ambitions, Kumble has the keen sense to not take himself too seriously, making _Cruel_Intentions_ something that those films never were--entertaining.

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