Pretty Persuasion

Were you like, even AWARE that American culture is like, TOTALLY fucked up?
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2004
Director: 
Marcos Siega
Starring: 
Evan Rachel Wood, Ron Livingston, James Woods, Adi Schnall, Elizabeth Harnois, Jane Krakowski
The Setup: 
High school girl and her friends accuse a teacher of sexual harassment in order to gain exposure and boost their acting careers. But it turns out there's even less to it than that.
Discussion: 

I had hoped for a lot more for this movie. It sounded like a good premise, I always like a good mean-spirited comedy, it looked funny, and of course the psychological impoverishment of American society is always a welcome topic. It starts out good, there are a few wicked laughs. and then they start to dry up. The satire starts focused, then gets broader, and broader, and broader, until finally the searing statement this movie has to make is that American society is like totally like fucked up, dude. Word.

Evan Rachel Wood [from Thirteen] plays Kimberly, an extremely worldly and jaded 15-year-old whose father [James Woods] is a racist, coked-out businessman who seems to spend most of his time at home taking drugs and whacking off. He has a porn-star style girlfriend who Kimberly accuses of fucking the family dog. Kimberly's mother calls at one point, and we can tell that Kimberly really loves her mother, but her mother only has about 2 minutes to talk to her. At school, Kimberly befriends new Middle Eastern student Randa, describing her version of life at the school, which includes telling her "I respect all races, but I'm glad I'm white." She goes on to tell her that the last alternate race she would ever be is Arabic. They also meet Kimberly's best friend Brittany, who is dating a guy who was dating Kimberly just before.

At the beginning, ALL men are presented as leering bags of testosterone who want nothing more than to get in a woman's pants. Kimberly's current flame read something "hilarious" about how a beer is better than a woman, but at first he can't remember any of them. There's also Mr. Anderson, the English teacher, who is leering right along with the rest of them. At home, he buys his wife a grey skirt so she'll look like one of the students at school, and makes her read a student detention paper on how she deserves to be spanked. At one point, a visitor to the principal's office says a woman is a "dyke" because she doesn't respond sexually to him; which I thought was another characterization of men as moronic horny beasts, but no, the woman actually turns out to be a lesbian.

Mr. Anderson annoys the three friends in some way or other, so Kimberly devises a plan in which they will accuse him of sexual harassment, in order to get rid of him, but mostly to get some publicity for themselves and to help their careers as aspiring actresses. The middle section of the movie is mostly made up of the trial, with the action moving back and forth in time to piece together the story. I guess someone saw Pulp Fiction, right?

Okay, so today's teenagers are moral and intellectual vacuums and junior sociopaths who value nothing except celebrity. Their parents are racist assholes who don't pay enough attention to their kids and set terrible examples. The news media is infinitely corruptible. Is any of this news? And what's the target here? The kids? The parents? The media?

Since the film chooses not to narrow the focus to target one of these groups, the target seems to be all of them. But unfortunately, when you have a target that broad, your message loses its specificity, which is why, ultimately, the message I get when walking out of this film is "American culture is fucked up." Which, you know, is something I understand with much greater clarity upon reading the New York Times every day. And that only costs me a dollar.

The impression I get is that the writer of this film is young. I would guess under 25. It just has the smell of immaturity all over it, of feeling like you're telling the big, big truths, when really it's just that you're young and can't sort out the big truths from the supporting details.

I should mention that the performances are uniformly good.

If you want to see a movie about a sociopathic teen who screws up other's lives, also through a sexual harassment lawsuit, but which possesses a consistent point of view, has well-written characters, is funnier, and has a solid story with a real arc, watch The Opposite of Sex.

SPOILERS>>>
In the final scene, we find out what Kimberly's real motivation for starting the whole sexual harassment trial was in the first place, and at this moment the movie completely falls apart. I can see what the idea was, but the rest of the movie just isn't written well enough to support it, and rather than surprise us with how small the original provocation was, it makes the entire movie seem small. Which has an unpleasant edge of making a viewer feel like he was duped into the theater, as the entire story is much smaller than it was sold as. But there then follows a very good moment, in which Kimberly watches herself on TV, in the role she won after causing all this hoopla, and it's just this shitty made-for-cable softcore porn thing. And you think, all that. for this? It's a good moment, and if the writer has been able to keep his focus narrowed and resist the temptation to hit a bunch of easy but unrelated targets, it could have been a stunning ending to a strong film.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn't. I would watch The Opposite of Sex. And if you've already seen it, I would watch it again. it stands up to repeated viewings.