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10 Things I Hate About You

Cotillions to proms and high tea to drunken parties

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Gil Junger

Written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith

With Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Larisa Oleynik

I was really scared after I saw -- and hated -- She’s All That. A nagging thought was attacking my mind. What if that movie was indeed (as its financial success indicates) “all that”, and I’m just getting old? Maybe I’m just too much of an old fogey to really relate to the world of a high school romance? Well, I don’t worry anymore. I just saw 10 Things I Hate About You, and the world is right again: I’m not getting too old, there’s still a hope for teenybopper movies, and She’s All That is still a lousy movie. 10 Things rocks.

Ever since the overwhelming success of Clueless, it was clear that we should get ready for an onslaught of teenage romantic comedies, which would adapt the works of classics by updating them. This involves setting them at a high school, and generally running amok by turning cotillions into proms, high tea into drunken parties, romantic walks in shadowy tree-lined alleys into making out in the back seat of a car.

Well, that’s all right -- as long as the result works. Adapting a classical work in such manner gives you the time-tested story, and nothing else; the characters, situations, dialogue, etc. still have to be done right. She’s All That was a disgusting re-telling of Pygmalion. 10 Things is based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and it mostly gets things right.

You see, there’s this shrew, Katharina (Julia Stiles), and her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) who can’t marry -- I mean date -- until Kat does it first. So Bianca’s sweetheart (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arranges for a local bad boy Petruchio -- I mean Patrick -- to take Kat out.

Good news: it’s Shakespeare all right. The whole story is based entirely on characters, their personal quirks and idiosyncrasies. The plot is a dense but controlled tangle, elegant enough to be comprehensible and complex enough to be fun. The dialog, some of it actually quoting the original source, is almost uniformly excellent, with just about every second line being highly memorable, if not always printable in a fine family newspaper like this one.

The characters are even better, smartly written and deftly acted. First and foremost there is Julia Stiles, whose Kat is a balanced act between inner anger at the world and outward acerbic attitude. The neat thing is that she does all that being consistently funny. The other leads are just as good: Larisa Oleynik as sweet Bianca, totally brainwashed by the consumerist culture and because of this, even sweeter; Heath Ledger as Pat, with his character arc moving seamlessly from a bad boy to a romantic hero; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from 3rd Rock from the Sun, being amazingly effecting as a nice guy.

More good news: director Gil Junger, directing his first movie after working on such sitcoms as Ellen and Dharma & Greg, displays an uncanny talent for nifty visuals. He turns the Padua High School into a veritable castle, and has fun with such stock situations as a party and a literature class. One shot in particular -- camera pointing upward the stairwell while a bunch of leaflets floats down -- is just beautiful.

Bad news: 10 Things sometimes feel mired in the traditions of a high school comedy, and for all the enthusiasm it tries to muster when it goes through familiar motions and stock situations, they remain rather tired. The local nerd and the egotistical jock are as clichÉ as they come; the prom scene is a virtual copy of every other prom scene; and some of Kat’s interactions with her father feel utterly artificial.

I guess this is the price one has to pay these days. Fortunately, these stock scenes are in the minority, with the rest being fresh and original. There is a wildly funny serenade, a first kiss at the paintball game, and more scenes that are simply fun to watch. Most importantly, the most problematic moment in the original play, Katharina debasing herself to declare her love to Petruchio, is done just right.

There’s still hope for the genre.