Cruel Intentions

This movie's got cruel intentions!
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1999
Director: 
Roger Krumble
Starring: 
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair
The Setup: 
Evil brother and sister manipulate others for fun.
Discussion: 

Given my love of evil teens, especially idle rich ones, I knew that I must confront this movie sometime. My love for Sarah Michelle Gellar was also a factor. Until I watched it, my greatest impression of this film was from a kid my ex and I used to be unofficial “uncles” to, who picked up the name from posters, and for a while, made his catchphrase “You’ve got cruel intentions!”

So this is a retelling of Dangerous Liasons [I know, I know, Les Liasons Dangereux] for the high school set. Awesome! I’m on board. And in addition to Gellar [SMG], we also have Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon. But did you also know that we get Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Swoozie Kurtz and TARA REID?!?! Neither did I.

We open with Phillippe as Sebastian driving into Manhattan. He goes to therapy with Swoozie Kurtz, who soon proves herself to be a terrible, horribly inappropriate therapist. He compliments her legs and says he’d love to photograph her. On his way out, she gets a call from her daughter, Tara Reid. Tara has had unseemly pictures of herself posted on the internet, leading Kurtz, author of something along the lines of “How to Raise Well-Adjusted Children” to lose her training and shout “Christ! How could you be so stupid?” When it’s revealed that the scoundrel in question complimented Tara’s legs and said he wanted to photograph her, Kurtz knows who it is and throws a big lobby freak-out, always somewhat satisfying.

We then join SMG as Kathryn taking little Selma Blair as Cecile under her wing. Cecile’s mother is Christine Baranski, and the poor girl seems a bit simple and sheltered. They leave and Phillippe shows up, and we soon learn that SMG is courting her as a friend because she’s got, you guessed it: cruel intentions. SMG tells Phillippe that she wants him to seduce Selma because she’s pissed that some guy dumped SMG for her, but Philippe has bigger fish: his next target is going to be Reese Witherspoon as Annette, who wrote an article in Seventeen called “Why I Plan to Wait,” and she’s not talking about waiting to finish her dinner before dessert. They make a bet; if Phillippe can’t seduce her, SMG gets his car, and if he can, he gets to bed SMG, his step-sister. Along this while SMG is wearing this quite odd outfit that presents her breasts on a sort of showcase platform, and she sits there idly rubbing them and trying to be all evil and seductive. They shake on it, and the game is on. In here we also catch the detail, obviously important for later, that Phillippe keeps a journal of his conquests.

Now it gets a little confusing as to who all these characters are an what they want. First Phillippe meets Reese, but she has already been warned of his reputation. Then he meets with Joshua Jackson overdoing it as a gay friend who is doing it on the DL with the football player who dumped SMG, and arranges his downfall. Then SMG and Selma have a picnic in Central Park, with SMG dressed all in black and looking very much the witch, and Selma being very comically stupid. For a while I was watching this like “Wait a minute—this is all a comedy?” At one point Selma says the guy who dumped SMG told her that he has just dumped some “Anorexic nutcase” [that would be SMG], and SMG YANKS on her hair. I love how she just smiles and says “Sorry!” SMG then teaches SMG how to french kiss, which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and is clearly there just to up this film’s “Hot” appeal to its MTV audience. You’ll notice that Selma is all out-front with the tongue while SMG is clearly trying to get through the exercise.

Then Phillippe hangs out with Reese, appearing naked in front of her and going for a little nude swim. Unfortunately, so far we’ve had little explanation of why Reese would go in for any of this if she already is on to Phillippe and his ways. Her dangerous attraction to him just doesn’t come through. Phillippe leaves her and catches the football player in bed with Jackson, photographing them. I find Jackson’s character, as conceived, to be homophobic, as he’s just an amoral, evil queen, and is shown wickedly filing his nails in bed as the football player is brought down. This means that he keeps an emery board right on his bedside table, and the minute his sex is interrupted, sets to nail care immediately. It’s just superficial and mean spirited. This movie has Cruel Intentions!

Meanwhile, Selma has been having serious flirtations with her black cello teacher. At one point SMG is watching a video of one of their sessions [she apparently secretly recorded?] where Selma stands on her head and opens her legs right in front of her instructor’s face. SMG goes straight to Baranski, Selma’s mom, and the next thing you know, Baranski is throwing a hilarious scene as she bitches out the instructor for even thinking about touching her precious daughter. Then SMG and Phillippe decide to cause further trouble by pretending to help the two with their secret romance. There’s all this stuff in here about one’s “reputation” that I suspect worked better when this thing was taking place in 18th century France. By the way, in here SMG lays down on top of Phillippe, gives him a good hump, then gets up and says she hopes he wins his bet.

SPOILERS > > >
So Phillippe gets roped into volunteering at an old folks’ home in order to further his case with Reese. On the way home, she makes funny faces at him, and we can tell that she’s really starting to get to him. Then there’s a repeat of the classic Dangerous Liasons moment when Selma is telling SMG something incriminating and SMG, face out of sight, is smiling, then snaps her face back into concern when Selma can see her again. She advises Selma to sleep with as many people as she can, to gain experience, saying “practice makes perfect.” By the way, Phillippe has also taken nude pictures of Selma. Then Phillippe has a chance to bed Reese—she’s ready to give it up—and he can’t! When he tells Reese it was all a bet, at first she thinks he’s faking, then she’s furious. So he goes and tells SMG, and she says that HE was her prey all along, that he threw away the only person he actually loved. Harsh.

So now everyone’s all bummed—we can tell, because we’re hearing Aimee Mann on the soundtrack. Phillippe tries to get back with Reese, and to this end sends her his diary. Around this time you might have reason to ask: WHERE are their parents? We haven’t seen or heard anything about them. You might also say “Oh, well I guess that was it for Tara Reid.” It’s kind of funny to think that they needed HER for such a small role because of the acting muscle she would bring to her small but pivotal role. Then Phillippe saves Reese from a car accident—but he is killed!

Next SMG and Reese see each other in the bathroom, and have a little conversation. We can tell Reese has a secret. SMG goes to deliver a speech as student council president [and you’re like “Wait a minute—these kids have been in school this whole time?”], but everyone starts running out of the auditorium during her speech! That’s RUDE. She goes outside, and it turns out that Reese has mass-copied Phillippe’s journal and is handing copies out to everyone! She is ruined—RUINED! And we’ve all learned our lesson. The last shot is a mirror of the opening shot, showing Reese driving into the city in Phillippe’s car. So SHE got the car, instead of SMG. That’s what women really want, see—nice cars. Let’s not think very deeply about how Reese inherited Phillippe’s car. I guess he altered his will moments before he died?
< < < SPOILERS END

It was very fun as a movie about evil, rich teens. It has a good sense of humor, and like I said, there are deep traces of flat-out comedy. Yet somehow, because it’s these teens, the whole thing never seems that serious or like such a big deal, probably because it kind of hinges of teenage humiliations and this whole concept of “reputation” that doesn’t really hold up in the modern teen context. Especially now, 10 years later, when we know that if someone had nude pictures of themselves appear on the internet, they could very well start promoting the site and perhaps score some lucrative endorsement contracts.

A big problem with the movie, for me, is that SMG, back then, just wasn’t that good. She seems too afraid to REALLY just come out and be sexy and evil, so her entire performance is that of an actress who wants to be respectable and doesn’t REALLY want people to think that she’s as highly-sexed as her character is supposed to be. This also robs the character from seeming as smart as she’s supposed to be. You are basically watching an actress try to be evil, rather then ever getting into the character. You can see how SMG’s acting has come along by comparing this to her wonderful performance as Krysta Now in Southland Tales, where what makes her so great is that she DOESN’T condescend, and plays this porn star without a hint of irony, as the role needs. In this film, she would have been much better served in the Reese role, although Reese is very good there. Selma also throws herself into her role as a simpleton without the slightest trace of irony, and is perfect. Phillippe also shows traces of the advanced acting he would continue to perfect.

So yeah, kind of fun, but hard to take seriously and very, very MTV. I’m amazed that at least a hint of the SMG-Selma kissing scene didn’t make it into the trailer, although it does end with the line that Selma should sleep with as many people as she can, trying to make the movie seem really hot and naughty for horny MTV teens. So there ya go—amusing, not much more.

Should you watch it: 

It’s not bad, but it is firmly in the column of the inessential.