Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Selma Ruins Cruel Intentions

During the 90s we had this thing about remaking classic literature into mostly-crappy-but-mostly-amusing teen flicks with Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20 on the soundtracks. The best remembered of these are probably 10 Things I Hate About You, Romeo & Juliet, Clueless and also Clueless.

"I would like to say this. Tardiness is not something you
can do on your own. Many, many people contributed to
 my tardiness. I would like to thank my parents for never
giving me a ride to school, the LA city bus driver who
took a chance on an unknown kid and last but not least,
 the wonderful crew from McDonalds who spend hours
making those egg McMuffins, without which I might
never be tardy."
Some of these adaptations worked better than others. Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You (reworkings of Emma and The Taming of the Shrew, respectively) were both about pretty universal concepts (stop meddling; stop being such a bitch to everyone), so they translated well.

Others are more questionable. "O" is an Othello retelling that centers around basketball, because... black people do basketball, I guess. This is obviously a dicey topic, as race always is, and as a white person I'm not really qualified to talk about it (let me know if you have any good links, by the way, so I can signal boost).

But I will say this: the original Othello was a cautionary tale about marrying below your station. Desdemona and Othello are doomed, not because they don't love each other or because they aren't good people, but because Othello is forced by the nature of the marriage to be continually looking for approval from those above him. Race does play into it, in the sense that people back then were gross and every time Othello did something good they were like "wow you're so much better than your skin how great", but it's not the main focus. Having Othello be a different race was the easiest way to distinguish him as being irrevocably beneath Desdemona's station, so Shakespeare went with that.

The movie "O", however, takes place now and focuses on the revenge aspect of the plot. This means that instead of Othello being driven mad by his unattainable desire for approval, Othello (Odin) is just... a good basketball player. At a disadvantage in society yes, but he's not driven mad by Iago (Hugo) in this version: from the very first time he doubts Desi (hey Julia Stiles, were you in all of these movies?), he gets aggressive. It's jealousy alone (mostly brought on by his own mind) that drives him to get violent with Desi multiple times.

In a society where young black men are often stereotyped as mindlessly violent, I can't be comfortable with this interpretation. The movie wants us to believe both that Odin is a good person and that his behavior escalates to domestic violence with barely any provocation. Nope nope nope nope nope.

But I think the very least appropriate for a teen remake was Dangerous Liaisons, a French book/play/movie about bored aristocrats.

In its original form, it was an epistolary novel that explored the dark side of the human spirit through the lens of petty malice. Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteiul are 40-somethings with nothing better to do than scheme to wreck the people around them - and each other. I think its best interpretation was probably the 1989 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

Its worst interpretation was the 1999 teen remake Cruel Intentions, about rich high schoolers living on New York's Upper Fashionable Side.

Well this looks like a masterpiece of subtlety.
The plot is relatively close to the source material: Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar in the worst casting decision of her life) is a rich girl who wants revenge on some random high schooler who dumped her. Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) is her step-brother, and his goal is to sleep with a "paradigm of chastity and virtue" named Annette (Reese Witherspoon, pre-Legally Blonde and also talent). They make a wager that Sebastian can't seduce Annette and... um, I'll let Wikipedia take this one away.

Thanks for that clarification.
Essentially what happens is that through a lot of convoluted plot twists and turns (ALL OF THE SPOILERS AHEAD AND I DO MEAN ALL OF THEM), Sebastian agrees to do Kathryn's dirty work on her ex, Kathryn aids and abets Sebastian, Sebastian seduces Annette, Annette gives in, Sebastian decides he really does love her, Kathryn threatens to ruin Annette's reputation if Sebastian doesn't break up with Annette, Sebastian breaks up with Annette, Kathryn tells people that Sebastian hit her, there's a fight, Sebastian gets hit by the slowest cab in New York, Kathryn gets slut-shamed at his funeral, the end.

And this is what's wrong with this adaptation: you cannot imbue the actions of modern-day teenagers with the same weight and significance as those of 40-something pre-French Revolution aristocrats. You just can't. None of this means anything, because Sebastian doesn't have a lifetime of debauchery behind him, and Kathryn doesn't have the shackles of a woman's role in the late 1700s.

In Cruel Intentions, Kathryn does mean things because EVIL. In the source material, it's implied that Kathryn's vindictive nature is the result of a lifetime of confinement, and the only way her intellect and desire for power can be satisfied is by manipulating the lives of those around her.

In Cruel Intentions, Sebastian is a sensitive soul with a journal and acquisitive nature. In the source material, Valmont is a bored womanizer dulled to excitement by a lifetime of debauchery - it's significant that there, his downfall comes from his own vanity rather than concern for Annette, which he's made himself all but incapable of.

Dangerous Liaisons is about two similar minds driving themselves and each other to an inevitable destruction, spreading wreckage everywhere they pass. Cruel Intentions kind of isn't - it really wants us to feel for poor woobie Sebastian, which of course negates the entire point of the story. If Kathryn is the sole player pulling the strings, then it's just a story about an unfortunate guy getting drawn into the snare of an evil slore.

Because reasons.
This might be more interesting if Kathryn had any nuance or personality beyond EVIL EVIL EVIL, but despite the best efforts of the "I'm the Marcia Brady of the Upper East Side and sometimes I want to kill myself" speech, it all falls flat. She has no motivation beyond KILL BURN KILL BURN FIRE PRETTY.

The irritating thing is, this movie didn't have to be bad. While you couldn't do an exact remake into teenagerland, it would have been so very easy to make a movie about two young rich people who want opposite things (say, they both want the same girl/boy), and how after a lifetime of "yes" they can't comprehend the word "no", and the horrific lengths they go to in order to maintain the status quo of getting anything they want.

Aside from the plot stuff, on a mechanics level this movie is just not very good. I think the people making it did put in some effort, but the buck must have stopped at the casting director, because wow do these performances fall flat. Evil has never looked good on Sarah Michelle Gellar (love her, but she has all the range of a toddler on a kazoo), Ryan Phillippe seems to think that cutting. off. every. word. like. this. is. acting, and Reese Witherspoon barely even bothered to show up. Witherspoon in particular is so mind-numbingly personality-void that I... zzz... sorry, slipped into that dang coma again.

Also, in the original, the people around Valmont and Merteiul suffer for V&M's sins. In this, pretty much everything is happy ever after except for the original two. Reese even drives off in Sebastian's car all hair-blowing-free-in-the-wind. So I guess the moral is that seducing doomed rich jerks = free car.

Wait... when the hell did you get that?! What, did he write
his will on the ER intake form?
Cruel Intentions isn't a good movie, but at least it fails in interesting ways, which is more than I can say for a lot of other movies. And if you're into convoluted wealthy teen drama, it could be a good popcorn watch. For my money, I'll go with Get Over It.

Because unlike the rest of you
plebes, I have TASTE.


  1. Now that you've done the ruining, I have to re-watch it so I can identify why I liked it so much.

    Thanks for handling all my problematic pop culture needs.

    (Also, I've never seen Get Over It! I don't know how this happened because 90s Teen Movies are kinda my jam and I loved Kirsten Dunst. I must remedy this immediately.)

    1. Yes, and once you watch, you need to tell me what the good parts are! :D

      You must watch Get Over It immediately. It's like they went to make a normal teen remake and said "screw it, let's just make this weird. Whatever!"

  2. Clueless is one of my favoritest movies ever!! Lol!

    Yes, "O" was an epic fail. The heart of Othello is jealousy, namely because Iago didn't think Othello deserved the good things he had/earned (in part for being black and also just cause Iago is a jealous douche) so he sets out to ruin Othello's life. They mucked this up quite badly. The script, everything. I don't think the actors got it either because they all sucked in this movie.

    My favorite adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons is Valmont with Colin Firth. :)

    You nailed it on the head though why "O" and Cruel Intentions failed. 10 Things & Clueless were adapted to fit the 90s. Those two movies were not. Things change. The source material just doesn't fit in those settings (the themes do, not the actual scenarios) and the screenwriters were too lazy to think of a way to make it work. Bad screenwriters. And can I add how much I HATED Reese in that movie. I hated she got the car. I hated her face. Just hate. The "innocent" nobody virgin gets everything and Buffy (LOL!) gets treated like crap and Sebastian dies for no reason. Thought I was watching a teen romp. Turned out I was watching a horror movie.

    Okay, I've never even heard of Get Over It!! What?!! I was the biggest Kirsten Dunst fan! I even sat through The Virgin Suicides 3 times trying to make sense of it and only watched it because of her!! For shame.

    1. Clueless is sooooo good. Really smart movie.

      I don't think Colin Firth has the necessary malice to do a true Valmont, but I will say he was much prettier than Malkovich. Much more convincing seduction scenes!

      SAME Witherspoon could have been replaced with a cardboard cut-out and nobody would have noticed.

      Get Over It is SO GOOD; it's hilariously irreverent. And I love that you were self-identified as a huge Kirsten Dunst fan, haha. Underrated actress IMO!

  3. OMG, I totally love Get Over It. It's soooo amazingly bad that it's good. KEEP ICING YOUR FRONT BUM!