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Cruel Intentions

Cruel all right, but the intentions are mush

By Roy Rodenstein

1999, 1 hr 37 min

Directed by Roger Kumble

Written by Roger Kumble, Choderlos de Laclos (novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”)

With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair

From the director of National Lampoon’s Senior Trip comes a new adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with a fresh-faced cast. Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair have appeared in recent teen smashes such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Can’t Hardly Wait. Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, has been critically well-regarded, from her 1991 debut in The Man in the Moon to the recent Pleasantville. Together they battle a hot-and-cold script which alternates between exploiting them and exploiting the audience.

Cruel Intentions is the story of two young Manhattan socialites with parental or monetary limits to get in their way. Kathryn (Gellar) and Sebastian (Phillippe) are cold, calculating life-suckers whose lives revolve about who to deflower, who to take sexual revenge on, and generally how to maintain their reputation as lords of their social scene. They are very good at what they do and thus suck the life out of themselves as well, experiencing continual dissatisfaction even though they accomplish everything they attempt.

The victims the movie selects to let Kathryn (Gellar) and Sebastian (Phillippe) play with are quite different. On the one hand there is Cecile (Blair), whose innocence Kathryn loathes because it often ends up attracting her jaded boyfriends. On the other there is Annette (Witherspoon), who has declared her intention to remain a virgin until she finds true love. Along with these two targets there is a supporting cast of victims ranging from therapists, to parents, to Cecile’s music teacher. The main conflict involves a bet for Sebastian to deflower the challenging Annette. If he succeeds, he can do with Kathryn as he pleases. If he loses, Kathryn gets his vintage car (which really is handsome). The ensuing warfare is at times enjoyably twisted, sometimes dull and often ludicrous, and that’s before the last half hour.

The movie’s premise and setup are workable enough. Phillippe and Gellar almost always have a great rapport as dueling sadists, although when the dialogue falls flat, it’s flatter than those infinite planes from physics class. Innuendo, as direct or rude as the situation may call for, is a constant, and similarly is at times clever but usually a snooze. Although these lead characters are one-note villains, at least the actors perform the limited roles well.

The other characters are more unusual. Blair puts in an amusing performance as a complete ingenue, but the degree of her role’s innocence is not exactly believable. Kathryn and Sebastian basically user her as a sexual and emotional toy at will, and the contrast between cardboard villain and cardboard naif just doesn’t work very well. Their scenes together are still often amusing, due to this contrast, but it’s more like a Saturday Night Live anything-for-a-laugh situation than a well-executed comedy on the big screen. Even scenes clearly meant as comedy are troublesome. When Cecile’s overprotective mother finds out her music teacher is in love with her, she tells him “I got you off the streets!” and he replies “I live at 59th and Park!” While the retort is funny, dredging up a racial issue and dropping it after one punchline is gratuitous at best.

The Annette character also gets little respect from the script. Much is made of her virginity pact in the early minutes but then she is depicted as just another girl who goes swimming alone, at midnight, with an advancing Sebastian. The love that eventually grows between them is no less unsubstantiated, and what happens beyond that had an audience that initially roared with laughter and approval groaning out loud.

A few highlights, both positive and negative, do stand out. There is a laughable subplot involving Kathryn’s snorting coke. Well, it’s not even a subplot -- every once in a while, Kathryn is just shown snorting some coke from a little ladle hidden in the cross she wears. Nothing at all is done with this fact, whether for amusement, for hipness, or even for preachiness. Perhaps they forgot to film those scenes the first time around and hurriedly decided to tack the drug aspect on. More favorably, there is a bit of good acting at times. In a key scene between Sebastian and Annette, Phillippe convincingly shows a moderate amount of emotion, while Witherspoon affectingly radiates utter and true innocence. This lone genuine scene, along with a few occasions when the script commits to the twisted morals and humor of the premise, make Cruel Intentions almost worth sitting through.