Cruel Intentions would be an Oscar contender. Rarely has a film elicited more raucous unintended laughter. Check out Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn Merteuil, a Manhattan rich kid whose public smile of virtue masks the vile heart of a vixen. Tottering around her parents’ elegant town house in high heels and debutante drag, she screams for revenge against the guys who screwed her over. The sight conjures up delicious camp memories of performances that the critics have flambed, such as Patty Duke’s in Valley of the Dolls and Barbra (fingernails!) Streisand’s in The Prince of Tides.
Get this: Kathryn won’t fuck her stud stepbrother, Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), until he deflowers a few virgins. She doesn’t like being dumped for “innocent little twits” such as Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair) and, worse, Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of the headmaster at Manchester Prep, where all these wealthy brats go to school. It’s Kathryn and Sebastian against the world. “Down, boy,” says Kathryn when her stepbro puts the moves on her. No sex until he succeeds in devirginizing Cecile and Annette. If he fails, she gets something sexier: his Jaguar.
Nutty stuff. First-time director Roger Kumble wants to move the high school genre beyond Grease and She’s All That. But he’s gone over the edge (and the top) in updating Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1782 novel by Pierre Laclos that blew the lid off the depravity and deceit of the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France. Laclos wasn’t thinking of high school. Neither was playwright Christopher Hampton when he adapted the book for the stage in 1985 and for the screen in 1988 as Dangerous Liaisons. That Oscar-winning film starred Glenn Close as Kathryn, John Malkovich as Sebastian, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman as the two innocents who become pawns in their insidious plan.
Of course, Hampton stuck to the period and let audiences draw their own contemporary parallels. No such subtlety for Kumble, whose screenwriting work includes Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. A Gen X Dangerous Liaisons might have been a good, brazen idea if Kumble had thought to skewer the 1990s power games that produced the congressional spectacle of Monica and Bill. But nooo. It’s the hot and nasty teen action that turns Kumble on. Sexual politics? Small potatoes when you can have hormone-driven mood swings. All of which leaves audiences up the creek — Dawson’s Creek. When it’s not the trite talk that sends Cruel Intentions into a tailspin, it’s the lightweight casting.
Gellar is a TV delight on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — wry and winning — but she’s over her head here trying to play grown-up. Close’s Kathryn was a pre-feminist avenger seeking retribution for male hypocrisy and subjugation. Gellar’s anger is skin-deep. Her vixen’s sneer seems borrowed from Gina Gershon in Showgirls. And she gets no help from Kumble’s shallow shock effects, including interracial sex and a chick-on-chick tongue kiss (how French!).
Phillippe’s Sebastian is a killer stud out of a fashion ad, paper thin and nonthreatening. Malkovich revealed the calculations of a military strategist behind the seducer’s cool facade. Phillippe merely looks bored when Sebastian slips the high hard one to Cecile (Blair, who plays Zoe on TV’s Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane, at least has fun with Cecile’s unexpectedly enthusiastic sexual awakening). A sick-puppy look is the best Phillippe can do to express the grand passion that floods Sebastian’s senses when he finds himself falling in love with Annette.
Witherspoon fares best among the actors as the virgin who writes a manifesto for Seventeen magazine titled “Why I Plan to Wait” — a challenge that Kathryn and Sebastian can’t resist. She adds much-needed warmth to this igloo of a movie. Otherwise, watching Cruel Intentions is like sitting through a high school production of a classic play done in modern dress by actors who don’t have a clue what’s going on. Lust, betrayal, revenge and death reduce audiences for these dangerous liaisons to something Laclos never figured on: fits of giggles.