Pretty Persuasion (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Pretty Persuasion opens with more promise than it closes with. It doesn't take long for the cattily satirical tone to become monotonous as the characters refuse all attempts at development and the plot treads water into the shallows. The film tries, with sporadic effectiveness, to mine the area where Heathers, Election, and Mean Girls achieved success. But this lampoon of the "haves" and "have nots" of high school never takes off, and, at times, is more mean spirited than comedic. Making it all the more disappointing is the way in which Evan Rachel Wood's bitch-on-wheels performance is wasted.

The sense of déjà vu with Heathers is too strong to ignore, and that makes comparisons inevitable. In every phase, Pretty Persuasion comes up short. It's not as funny. It's not as hard-edged. It's not as insightful. And, most importantly, it doesn't tell as engaging a story. Heathers grips us and keeps us involved, in part because the lead character (played by Winona Ryder) is three-dimensional. Pretty Persuasion, on the other hand, is flat. Wood is great as Kimberly Joyce, but there's only so much she can do with an underdeveloped protagonist. Plus, the payoff - the real reason underlying all of Kimberly's bitchiness and manipulation - is anticlimactic. We have a right to expect something more clever from screenwriter Skander Halim and first-time feature director Marcos Siega.

Kimberly is one of those poisonous girls it's better to avoid - as her best friends, Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and Randa (Adi Schnall) - learn. Pissed that she has lost the lead role in a school play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, Kimberly decides to seek revenge upon the drama teacher, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston). Aided by Brittany and Randa, she files a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment against the teacher. This causes a firestorm of controversy to swirl around the school. A local reporter, Emily Klein (Jane Krakowski), fans the flames of scandal when she senses a chance to advance her career. While getting the story, she becomes intimate with Kimberly (who has sampled the power of sex in getting what she wants), who (thanks to a camcorder) gains blackmail evidence against her. Meanwhile, Kimberly's exposure is making her a tabloid darling.

Pretty Persuasion tries to round out Kimberly's character by giving her a dysfunctional home life. Her father (James Woods) is a vicious bigot who treats his daughter like an annoyance. Her step-mother (Jaime King) is only a few years older than she is and a lot less intelligent. And her mother can't remember what grade she's in. If this isn't the kind of family that might generate a misanthrope of Kimberly's nature, I don't know what is.

Some of the film's targets are on the mark: the teacher who watches his female students a little too closely, the media frenzy that assumes guilty until proven innocent, the public's unending fascination with scandal, and the cliquishness of high schools. There are some misses as well, especially in the areas of racial intolerance and bigotry, where the film turns mean spirited. Nevertheless, a satire only works when it's more than a series of strung-together scenes. Pretty Persuasion is at times clever (too clever for its own good?), but it is rarely engaging. Wit can sustain a movie only so long before it starts to become tiresome.

One of Pretty Persuasion's bright spots is Evan Rachel Wood, who with this added to Thirteen on her resume, is proving herself to be among today's versatile teenage actresses. Wood gives us a character who is strong yet vulnerable, vindictive yet appealing, and at times admirable but never likeable. Kimberly is a nasty piece of work, but Wood keeps us interested. Would that the same could be said of the other characters, none of whom leaves an impression. Even James Woods is far from his best - his lines are mostly profanity-laced tirades against Jews.

Pretty Persuasion reminds me of a half-hour TV series that has a great pilot episode, then falls apart in subsequent installments. Movies need to grow and change to keep things interesting; this one is stagnant. If this kind of satirical view of high school life appeals to you, see Heathers, Election, and Mean Girls instead. All have sharper edges and a clearer focus.

Pretty Persuasion (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1