The fourth film and the second modern-dress version to use Choderlos De Laclos’ notorious 1782 novel as its inspiration, Roger Kumble’s “Cruel Intentions” is “Dangerous Liaisons” for the teenage crowd. Nasty, profane and wickedly entertaining for the most part, pic is quite a faithful rendition of the scandalous novel. Fulfilling the promise he showed in “54,” Ryan Phillippe gives a star-making performance as a sexier, more seductive Valmont than either John Malkovich or Colin Firth in earlier versions. This black comedy also benefits from a terrific turn by TV’s Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who’s as manipulative and mean-spirited as Glenn Close was. Though pic is hampered by an excessively literal and moralistic tone in the last reel, with the right marketing Columbia could score with a youth movie that’s decidedly different from teen pics currently dominating the market.
De Laclos’ story was last adapted to the bigscreen in Stephen Frears’ 1988 Oscar-winning film and Milos Forman’s 1989 box office flop, “Valmont.” There’s no doubt that scripter Kumble has targeted his new adaptation toward today’s society; changes from the original book reflect demographics as well as trendiness, with a black thesp, Sean Patrick Thomas, playing Cecile’s music instructor (Keanu Reeves in the 1988 version) and gay characters (played by Joshua Jackson and Eric Mabius) in major roles.
(Swoosie Kurtz is the only actress to appear in two film versions of the story: as Cecile’s mother in Frears’ film — here played by a splendid Christine Baranski — and as Valmont’s psychiatrist in the new one.)
The yarn is off to a good start with a sharply observed therapy session, in which a cold, cynical shrink, Dr. Greenbaum (Kurtz), tells Sebastian Valmont (Phillippe), “Adolescence is hard, you’re too hard on yourself.” It becomes clear from the start that more than actions, words are the lethal weapons in this milieu. “Cruel Intentions’ ” lingo is full of double entendres as well as graphic descriptions of anatomy and sexual conduct — elements unusual in a studio film.
Set in Manhattan’s upper-crust society during summer break, tale revolves around Kathryn Merteuil (Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont, two wealthy brats and step-siblings who spend their time conspiring diabolical wagers. With seduction and sexual conquest as chief rewards, the duo select as their new pawns a naive adolescent, Cecile (Selma Blair in the Uma Thurman part), and the virginal Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), whose character reps the most drastic deviation from the other film versions.
Dumped by her beau for the innocent Cecile, Kathryn decides to get even, challenging Sebastian to deflower the girl. The point is to turn Cecile into an insatiable tramp and then deliver her to her prospective spouse as damaged goods. Having slept with all the girls he’s desired, Sebastian is at first reluctant: The challenge is not big enough. But under pressure and with the lure of sexual promises, he finally obliges, though still dismisses the conquest as too easy.
In the meantime, Sebastian, not losing any time, sets his sights on a greater challenge: Annette, the new headmaster’s daughter, who recently published an article in Seventeen in which she declared her intentions to stay “pure” until marrying her true love. Holding that Sebastian can’t seduce the chaste Annette before school begins, Kathryn agrees to the wager. This time, the stakes are higher: If Sebastian succeeds, Kathryn will spend a wild night with him, but should he fail, he’ll have to forfeit his 1956 Jaguar to her — and face the shame of defeat.
What makes the first reel of this version seductively diverting is the sexual tension between Sebastian and Kathryn, and the fact that they are both attractive. The 1988 version suffered from a miscast Malkovich and the lack of a sexual charge between him and Close. On the other hand, Frears’ film was more resonant in stressing the gender-related issues, specifically the position of women in French society of yesteryear.
To truly enjoy “Cruel Intentions,” viewers must overcome one major problem: The actors are too old to play adolescents. That most of the thesps are in their twenties undermines credibility, as well as the shock value of the prep-school setting. Indeed, primary target audience for this savvy (im)morality tale seems to be twentysomething, rather than high school, viewers.
Even so, the first two acts provide the kind of lewd, odious fun seldom encountered in teen films, making “Cruel Intentions” a guilty pleasure for both young and mature auds. Unfortunately, in the name of redemption and political correctness, the last chapter is too earnest and obvious in its punitive stance toward some of the characters, turning pic into a more conventional youth drama.
On the plus side, new version benefits from its contempo slant, for the characters need not hide behind wigs, corsets and makeup, freer now to speak their minds and reveal their bodies while playing their cruel game.
Since Sebastian’s personality varies depending on who he’s with, role provides Phillippe plenty of opportunities to display his considerable skills. Repping a significant stretch from TV’s “Buffy,” Gellar shines as the witty, evil and vulnerable Kathryn, in a meticulous performance that deserves credit for not mimicking Close’s earlier turn. Witherspoon is less effective as the virtuous Annette, admittedly a difficult role, and newcomer Blair is too broad, overdoing Cecile’s clumsiness. A terrific line of supporting actresses, headed by Kurtz and Baranski, may be a tad too theatrical, but so is the material.
Tech credits are polished across the board, especially Edward Shearmur’s cool score and Jon Gary Steele’s lush production design, seldom indicating that “Cruel Intentions” is a first effort.