Cruel Intentions

The fourth film and the second modern-dress version to use Choderlos De Laclos' notorious 1782 novel as its inspiration, Roger Kumble's Cruel Intentions is Dangerous Liaisons for the teenage crowd. Nasty, profane and wickedly entertaining for the most part, pic is quite a faithful rendition of the scandalous novel, last adapted to the big screen in Stephen Frears' 1988 Oscar-winning film and Milos Forman's 1989 box-office flop, Valmont.

Fulfilling the promise he showed in 54, Ryan Phillippe gives a star-making performance as a sexier, more seductive Valmont than either John Malkovich or Colin Firth in the earlier versions. This black comedy also benefits from a terrific turn by TV's Buffy the Vampire Splayer Sarah Michelle Gellar, who's as manipulative and mean-spirited as Glenn Close was. Though hampered by an excessively literal and moralistic tone in the last reel, with the right marketing, Columbia could score with a youth movie that's decidedly different from all the teen flicks currently dominating the market.

There's no doubt that scripter Kumble has targeted his new adaptation towards today's society for the changes from the original book reflect demographics as well as trendiness, with a black thesp, Sean Patrick Thomas, playing Cecile's music instructor (Keanu Reeves in the 1988 version) and gay characters (played by Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius) in major roles. It's probably a coincidence, but Swoosie Kurtz is the only actress to appear in two film versions: as Cecile's mother in Frears' film (here played by a splendid Christine Baranski), and as Valmont's psychiatrist in the new one.

The yarn is onto a good start with a sharply observed therapy session, in which a cold, cynical shrink, Dr. Greenbaum (Kurtz) tells Sebastian Valmont (Philippe), “adolescence is hard, you're too hard on yourself.” It becomes clear from the start that more than actions, words are the lethal weapons in this milieu. For a studio movie, Cruel Intentions's lingo is full of double entendres and graphic too in its description of anatomy and sexual conduct.

Set in Manhattan's upper crust society during summer break, tale revolves around Kathryn Merteuil (Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont, two wealthy brats and step-siblings, who spend their time conspiring diabolical wagers. With seduction and sexual conquest as chief rewards, the duo select as their new pawns a naive adolescent, Cecile (Selma Blair in the Uma Thurman part), and the virginal Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), whose character reps the most drastic deviation from the other film versions.

Dumped by her beau for the innocent Cecile, Kathryn decides to get even, challenging Sebastian to deflowering the girl. The point is to turn Cecile into a insatiable tramp and then deliver her to her prospective spouse as damaged good. Having slept with all the girls he desired, Sebastian is at first reluctant: the challenge is not big enough. However, under pressure and with sexual promises for the future, he finally obliges, though still dismisses the conquest as too easy.

In the meantime, not losing any time, Sebastian sets his sights on a greater challenge: Annette, the new headmaster's daughter, who recently published an article in Seventeen, in which declared her intentions to stay “pure” until marrying her true love. Holding that Sebastian can't seduce the chaste Annette before school begins, Kathryn agrees to the wager. This time, the stakes are higher than the usual: If Sebastian succeeds, Kathryn will spend a wild night with him, but should he fail, he'll have to forfeit his 1956 Jaguar to her–and face the shame of defeat.

What makes the first reel of this version more seductively diverting is the sexual tension between Sebastian and Kathryn, and the fact that they are both attractive. The 1988 version suffered from a miscast Malkovich, who was not phsyically attractive, and the lack of sexual charge between him and Glenn Close. On the other hand, Frears' film was more resonant in stressing the gender-related issues, specifically the position of women in French society of yesteryear.

To truly enjoy Cruel Intentions, audiences have to overcome one major problem: The actors are too old to play adolescents. Audiences were less discriminating and age was less of an obstacle in the studio era, when James Dean, Sidney Poitier, and Warren Beatty were cast as high school students while well into their twenties. In Kumble's version, the fact that most thesps are in their twenties work against the credibility–and shock–of having set the story set in prep school. Indeed, primary target audience for this savvy im(morality) tale also seems to be the twentysomething rather than high school viewers.

Even so, the first two acts provide the kind of lewd, odious fun seldom encountered in teen flicks, making Cruel Intentions a guilty pleasure for both young and mature auds. Unfortunately, in the name of redemption and political correctness, the last chapter is too earnest and obvious in its punitive acts toward the “negativism” that marked the main characters early on. Sebastian's death in a car accident while trying to save Annette's life; Kathryn's being ostracized when Sebastian's journal is publicly disclosed; and Annette's final realization of true love turn pic into a more conventional youth drama, one with morals and lessons. On the plus side, new version benefits from its contempo slant, for the characters need not hide behind wigs, corsets and makeup, freer now to speak out their mind and reveal their bodies in their cold game of emotional cruelty.

Since Sebastian is a different person with each character, role provides handsomer Phillippe plenty of opportunities to display his considerable skills. Representing a significant stretch from TV's Buffy the Vampire, Gellar shines as the witty, evil and vulnerable Kathryn, in a meticulous performance that deserves credit for not mimicking Glenn Close. Witherspoon as the virtuous Annette is less effective in an admittedly difficult role, and newcomer Blair is too broad, overdoing Cecile's clumsiness. A terrific line of supporting actresses, headed by Kurtz and Baranski, may be a tad too theatrical, but so is the material.

Tech credits are polished across the board, especially Edward Shearmur's cool score and Jon Gary Steele's lush production design, seldom indicating that Cruel Intentions is a first effort.