An Unsexy Spat Between Brats
We’re in the middle of a plague of moronic teenage movies featuring thumb-sucking Lolitas with three names. In the ads, confusion reigns. Rachael Leigh Cook. Lara Flynn Boyle. Jennifer Love Hewitt. Judy Evans Greer. Joey Lauren Adams. And on and on, until the marquees run out of letters and ticket buyers run out of curiosity.
These girls come from TV sitcoms or trashy movies no grown-up ever sees, like Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer . I can’t tell one from the next. They look and sound alike, and they all act with their hair. Oh, well. I got used to Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson. Maybe I can learn to live with Sarah Michelle Gellar. That is, if she ever graduates from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (a TV show I’ve never seen, although my friends assure me I need only take one look and I’ll know why).
She is certainly trying. Fresh from the dismal Simply Irresistible , her Q rating has now landed her in a more ambitious project, Cruel Intentions , a Gen-X update of the scandalous 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos that transports the lust, betrayal, deception, guilt and sexual duplicity of 1782 Paris to Manhattan’s Upper East Side for no other reason than to seduce the youth market. It’s the fourth time around the block for this Gallic warhorse. In 1959, the story of the wicked and sadistic aristocrats Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont became a lavishly praised Roger Vadim film with Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Philipe. In 1988, using an adaptation by Christopher Hampton of his hugely successful London and Broadway play, Stephen Frears triumphed with Dangerous Liaisons , starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. One year later, Milos Forman flopped with yet another rehash called Valmont , with Annette Bening and Colin Firth. Alas, the predatory sexual conspirators are now up to their old tricks again, but as venomous Park Avenue preppies their capped fangs have lost some bite.
In Cruel Intentions , the treacherous Marquise de Merteuil is named Kathryn (Ms. Gellar) and the web-spinning, sexual conquistador Vicomte de Valmont is Sebastian, played by Flavor of the Month Ryan Phillippe, who survived the disastrous 54 with pubescent hearts pounding for more. Bored and massively rich, with too much free time on their hands, no parental supervision and not a schoolbook in sight, they waste their summer vacation seducing everybody between the ages of 15 and 20 who lives in an upper-crust 30-block radius between Elaine’s and Tiffany’s, discarding their victims and ruining lives just for the fun of it.
Kathryn has just been dumped by her latest beau for an innocent virgin named Cecile (Selma Blair) and enlists Sebastian’s help in destroying her reputation. Sebastian considers this assignment too easy. What he really wants is unbridled sex with Kathryn, also his stepsister. So they make a bargain. If Sebastian can ruin Cecile and deflower the even more chaste and virtuous new prep school headmaster’s daughter Annette (played by the enchanting Reese Witherspoon) before the fall school term begins, Kathryn will fulfill his fantasies in bed with no holds barred. If he fails, she gets his treasured 1956 Jaguar.
Plotting strategies with the cool, calm detachment of four-star generals deploying their troops into battle, these decadent and immoral teenagers go to work. While Kathryn lures the idiotic Cecile into uncharted lesbian submission and then turns her over to a black cello instructor from Juilliard, Sebastian diabolically works on Annette, who is brighter and more resistant to his bait than he planned. (Annette has even published an idealistic manifesto in Seventeen on the value of fidelity before marriage.) Along the way, the terrible twosome finds time to blackmail the school football hero (who is a closet homosexual) and enrage the interfering shrinks and mothers who get in their way.
It’s a delight, under these stressful circumstances, to welcome such veteran scene-stealers as Swoosie Kurtz and Christine Baranski. Most of the film is a somber, manipulative affair in which the décor is often more engrossing than the smarmy snickerings of smug, cynical teenagers. Despite all the prurient dialogue, director Roger Kumble, making his feature-directing debut after the dubious honor of writing Dumb and Dumber , is positively bashful about actually showing anything remotely sexy.
By the time Sebastian makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with the charming Annette, he has become almost as virtuous as his victim. Where the acid cynicism of Glenn Close and John Malkovich provided a clash of cobras, the coyness of Mr. Phillippe (who is no Gérard Philipe, either) and the youthful inexperience of Ms. Gellar provide little more than a spat between brats. By the time they get what they deserve, the cruelty and psychological complexity of a sophisticated work have long been dissipated, and the ensuing tragedy has little resonance.
Cruel Intentions might have been more convincing if the immensely gifted Reese Witherspoon had switched roles with Ms. Gellar. She has played spunky, tarted-up and sexually precocious teenagers with such dexterity and relish in Freeway , Twilight and Pleasantville that she might bring to the role of Kathryn some of the skill and conviction Ms. Gellar lacks. (Even as the angelic Annette, she easily walks away with the picture.) But even with perfect casting, Cruel Intentions is a pointless miscalculation. Soulless adults doing cruel things to wreck the lives of weaker adults and knowing they’re doing what they should not do is not the same thing as selfish, unformed teenagers doing what comes naturally.
At the end of Dangerous Liaisons , when Glenn Close’s eyes turned to marble as she paid the ultimate price for self-destruction on the altar of decency, the effect was chilling. In this naïve teenage spin, Ms. Gellar gets snubbed on campus. It only feels like someone turned up the air-conditioning.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a British underworld caper about four goons from the crime-ridden East End of London who gamble their cocky lunkhead lives on a sure thing and find themselves up to their accents in mobsters. Best mates who have saved up their takes from a variety of petty larcenies, they bet all they’ve swindled on one card game they can’t lose. When the game turns out to be a setup, they end up owing $800,000 to the game’s host, the murderous owner of a notorious sex club named Hatchet Harry. If they don’t come up with the money in one week, their fingers will be chopped off, digit by digit.
As their no-brainer slowly turns into a “bad day in Bosnia,” the poor sods put their heads together and orchestrate a caper that could pay off their gambling debt and even net them a hefty profit. It involves two antique guns worth a fortune at Sotheby’s and a theft from a trio of gay drug dealers who turn out to be anything but sissies. Everything backfires. Plots, subplots and counterplots ensue, as the number of gangs multiply and all the crooks try to outwit each other. It’s fast, funny and violent.
It is also confusing. With so many competing characters, spiraling snafus and too little help from the script, you keep asking, Which gang is this? Who is Barry the Baptist, and what does he have to do with Big Chris and his pint-sized son, who is fast growing up to be a skinhead like his old man? Which gang’s got the money now? The narrative remains unfathomably complex until the end (it all makes perfect sense if you just hang in there) and the script finally sizzles with wit, insolence and suspense.
Crucial to the film’s remarkable authenticity are not only the gritty performances (Jason Flemyng, Nick Moran, Steven Mackintosh and a surprising turn by Sting are standouts in a big and impressive cast), but the robust direction by Guy Ritchie, who also wrote the punchy screenplay, and the raw, dark camerawork that captures a real sense of pace and place. The narrative is perhaps a bit over-eventful (a new corpse hits the sidewalk in practically every scene and you’re not always sure who it is, or why) and the violence is so graphic it may unsettle some viewers, but this is an audacious, provocative and compulsively watchable film with thrillingly black humor.
The use of subtitles would be a blessing; the dialects are so fast and furious and butchered you sometimes wonder if it’s the English language you’re hearing. But Mr. Ritchie, who is making his directorial debut, clearly has talent to spare, and the bristling, cliffhanger ending will leave you reeling. Already one of Britain’s sleeper box-office hits of the year, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is crazy and unpredictable enough to repeat its success here, too. It roars and ignites and hits the ground running.