Turning “The Taming of the Shrew” into a teen comedy sounds like a high-concept no-brainer, until you realize the play’s extremely crusty plot mechanics and dyed-in-wool misogyny make it even less likely a modern high school transplant than, say, “Titus Andronicus.” (Hmm … not a bad idea.) Touchstone’s “10 Things I Hate About You” thus doesn’t take much time before ditching its pitch idea in favor of a mishmash of newer formulas, never quite settling on a cogent game plan or directorial tone. Scattershot results won’t exactly knock “Shakespeare in Love” off the charts (at least not for more than a week or so), but should do OK with the pic’s less discerning target aud.
The 20th century hasn’t been kind to “Shrew,” even if it remains one of the Bard’s more popular comedies; recent decades have found theater directors developing pretzel logic to soften the play’s hearty shut-up-wench-and-get-me-a-beer view of gender equity.
Tyro co-writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith simply ignore the no-longer-p.c. parts of “Taming,” but can’t quite get around the equally outmoded plot trigger.
Hence it’s less funny-ha-ha than funny-queasy when divorced dad Walter Stratford (Larry Miller) won’t let his younger daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), date until his eldest, Kat (Julia Stiles), finds a beau as well, ostensibly because, as a doctor, he’s seen too many unwanted teen pregnancies. Way to teach sexual responsibility, Dad.
Everybody wants to date Padua sophomore Bianca, because she’s pretty and popular and bubble-headed. Kat has no suitors, however, and no interest in them yet — she’s into grrl rock, feminist theory and other interests that, in the pic’s strained reasoning, somehow preclude the hormonal urge.
But so long as she’s dateless in Seattle (the story’s setting), so is hot-to-trot Bianca. Ergo the latter’s two would-be boyfriends — noxiously vain Joey (Andrew Keegan) and dweebish nice guy Cameron (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) each plot to fix up the standoffish sis with whoever’s willing.
This search turns up only mysterious new kid in town Patrick (Heath Ledger), reputedly a very bad boy. Bribed, he finds himself taking a shine to independent-minded Kat. She returns the favor after a fashion, and, natch, it turns out Patrick is in fact a gentleman and a scholar after all.
Meanwhile, Bianca wakes up and smells the toxins radiating from Joey. This clears the field for Cameron, whose second banana, Michael (David Krumholtz), also finds his suitable sweetie.
At its most promising (as in a seg where Patrick serenades Kat with help from the marching band and football field sound system), “10 Things” aims for an anything-goes silliness reminiscent of teen-pic classics like “Sixteen Candles.”
But it lurches all over the map, encompassing dialogue both inspired and juvenile-tasteless. There’s also middling slapstick, rampant product placement and awkward bits of earnest drama.
Sitcom vet Gil Junger’s feature bow is high on energy, low on cohesion. At times the pic doesn’t even seem certain which decade it’s set in; the squeaky-clean high school environs often feel more ’80s than ’90s.
Wall-to-wall soundtrack tunes likewise have an era-confusing effect. (The current alt-rock unit Letters to Cleo makes several on-camera appearances.)
A gag reel under closing credits hints at better, loopier comedy than “10 Things” can generally muster. Still, the sloppy but lively effort lands nowhere near the genre’s lower depths.
The cast is decent, with fast-rising Stiles (soon to be seen in two more Bard knockoffs, “Hamlet” and the “Othello” update “O”) and Aussie transplant Ledger an assured lead duo. Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Allison Janney and David Leisure each have fun moments as oddball members of the teaching staff.
The tech package is slick and pacey.