Cruel Intentions (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Three things made Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton collaboration, one of the best films of the decade: tremendous dialogue, an intriguing and Machiavellian plot, and top-notch performances (excepting Keanu Reeves). Cruel Intentions, a thoroughly unappetizing remake where the setting has been shifted to modern day New York and the main characters have been turned into teenagers, retains only one of those elements. Hampton's blistering, pointed dialogue has been replaced by cheap, pallid one-liners. And the likes of Glenn Close and John Malkovich have given way to unconvincing actors who can't grasp the concept that roles of this complexity require more than good looks.

In its basic plot structure, Cruel Intentions remains rigorously faithful to Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." At first glance, one might assume that to be a strength, but, upon closer examination, it turns out to be a problem. What works with mature individuals in 1782 France seems false when applied to high school kids in 1999 America. The world-weariness that drives the characters in Dangerous Liaisons is not apparent here - it wouldn't make sense in this context (not that making sense is of great import to anyone involved in this misguided project). And, with that key motivating factor excised, it's difficult to accept the two main characters - Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and his step-sister, Katherine (Sarah Michelle Gellar) - as anything more than servants of a plot. Both they and their circumstances seem artificial. Forcing the story of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" into this setting is like jamming a square peg into a round hole.

Sebastian is the sexual terror of his prep school - he can have any girl he wants at will. Anyone except his step-sister, Katherine, that is. Bored with so many easy conquests, he sets a challenge for himself - Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), a "paradigm of chastity and virtue" who has vowed to remain a virgin until she finds true love. Sebastian makes a bet with Katherine that he can seduce Annette. If he fails, Katherine gets his sports car. If he succeeds, he gets a night with her. At first, Sebastian seems to have no chance, but, through a series of lies and manipulations, he softens Annette's reserve. Meanwhile, to help Katherine gain revenge on an ex-boyfriend, he agrees to bed the object of that boy's affection - a socially-inept and sexually naïve girl named Cecile (Selma Blair, acting like she's in a Farrelly Brothers comedy).

Although both Sebastian and Katherine come across as a writer's constructs, Annette is refreshingly real, both in the way she talks and the way she reacts. Part of that comes from the actress. Reese Witherspoon has a natural talent that audiences have been aware of since her 1991 debut in The Man in the Moon. Next to her, both Ryan Phillippe (54) and Sarah Michelle Gellar (most recently seen in Simply Irresistible) come across as posers. They are both attractive and they say their lines with relish, but there's nothing more there. Those looking for the kind of complex relationship that Close and Malkovich brought to the screen over a decade ago will be bitterly disappointed. It's not there, and nothing fills the vacuum.

When it comes to sexual frankness, Cruel Intentions treads the line between eroticism and exploitation. The pseudo-soft core sequences are a blatant attempt to attract an under-18 audience (and they will probably succeed in doing so, the "R" rating notwithstanding). Of course, no one's likely to shout about child pornography, since it's pretty obvious that the leads are all in their twenties. Director Roger Kumble, making his debut behind the camera, adds a few '90s twists to his script, but the manner in which he incorporates an interracial couple, gay sex, and a girl/girl kiss leaves a distasteful impression. The only thing Kumble changes substantially is the ending. His new version is heavyhanded; the original was brilliant.

Cruel Intentions is only the latest in a series of recent set-in-high-school adaptations of classic tales (none of which have been all that impressive). First there was Clueless (Jane Austen's "Emma"), then She's All That ("Pygmalion"), and now Cruel Intentions. In this case, the producers must assume (or hope) that their target audience has never seen Dangerous Liaisons, because it will be immediately apparent to anyone exposed to both versions which is inferior. No amount of youthful charisma can alter the fact that, in the light of Dangerous Liaisons, Cruel Intentions is a feeble and dissatisfying shadow.

Cruel Intentions (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1999-03-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1