For a bad movie, Cruel Intentions is pretty good. When I say that, I mean that it is pretty entertaining, there is a good mix of humor and drama, and the acting is serviceable. I also mean that the movie is garbage from beginning to end. But since it will probably attract a big audience of youngsters like ourselves, it will be a big hit. With that in mind, let’s proceed.
Cruel Intentions is the slightly meaningless title of a new adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which has been made into a movie three times before: once under its own name, once as Dangerous Liaisons and once as Valmont. Here, written and directed competently (most of the time) by first-time director Roger Kumble, the twist is that the pre-French Revolutionary aristocrats have been transformed into wealthy youngsters from Manhattan, of some indeterminate age between 15 and 25. Of course, these too-rich kids are meant to be as envied and despised as the decadent French aristocrats. Should we assume that a revolution is coming to end their way of life forever? That’s not something that has occurred to this movie, so let’s not worry about it.
The “hero” of the film is Sebastian Valmont, played by Ryan Phillippe (54, I Know What You Did Last Summer). He’s a cad who relishes toying with and deflowering young women â€“ how naughty! His counterpart is Kathryn Merteuil, played by Sarah Michelle “Buffy” Gellar. The wicked twosome decides on a wager: whether or not Valmont can seduce the virginal, innocent Annette, played by Reese Witherspoon (Pleasantville, Freeway). If he fails, Kathryn gets his extravagant sports car. If he wins, he gets Kathryn. How wicked! How cunning! How archaic! Especially some of the 18th century-style dialogue that comes out of the mouth of vacuous pretty boy Phillippe.
The first, naughty part of the movie is the most entertaining, especially when you do not really care about the characters. The movie starts to lose steam when it turns into a morality fable, as Valmont begins to fall in love with Annette and realize that, hey, maybe his life of decadent excess is not so great after all. This is the part of the movie where I kept checking my watch, the part of the movie that is not true to itself. Audiences will flock to Cruel Intentions not to see someone learn to be a better human being, but to watch people be bastards to each other in a titillating and suggestive manner. This sentiment was best summed up in the scene in which Valmont realizes he can not have sex with the willing Annette because he loves her too much: from the back of the theater some young punk hollered, “Are you stupid?” If you want to see a movie that really pays off in terms of guilty pleasures (and has the honesty to provide genuine nudity), see last year’s Wild Things. Cruel Intentions fails when it hypocritically tries to adopt a high moral ground.
As for the acting, it is generally entertaining in an overacted kind of way. Ryan Phillippe seems to be attempting his best John Malkovich impression, with a deadpan delivery â€“ but on him it just looks like he has Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sarah Michelle Gellar is appropriately bitchy and manipulative, although not nearly up to Glenn Close standards (it’s the difference between a sex kitten and a she-wolf). Reese Witherspoon is good as the only human being in the entire cast. Christine Baranski, Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, and Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson also have small parts, as does veteran actress Swoosie Kurtz, who, strangely enough, was also in Dangerous Liaisons.
What makes this movie so much more entertaining than, say, Varsity Blues is the decadent style of it all, its droll “All-I-care-about-is-sex-and-luxury” attitude. Varsity Blues reeked of a corporate money-making machine, complete with a hit soundtrack and a simplistic moral based on characters who were clearly good or evil. Cruel Intentions is a step up because most of the time the movie does not demand that we like the characters and because it is so divorced from any kind of reality. When this movie makes a joke, we laugh a little at the joke, and then we laugh at ourselves because the joke was so ridiculously bad that it could not possibly be for real.
That is the essence of the enjoyable bad movie: that you can enjoy the movie while simultaneously noticing how stupid and false it is. Cruel Intentions falls apart at times, but for most of its length it is reasonably enjoyable. Check your good taste at the door.