There are two ways to look at a teen sex dramedy like "Cruel Intentions." If you compare it to the usual teen fare, the dialogue is more clever, the plot more interesting, and the script intelligent enough that it might actually appeal to adults as well as the raging-hormones set--especially those curious to see Reese Witherspoon and her soon-to-be ex-husband Ryan Phillippe in the roles that drew them to each other in real life.
On the other hand, if you consider this latest adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses against some of the others--particularly Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons," starring John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer--this one can seem pretty insipid by comparison.
The problem is that the dialogue is so sophisticated, even stilted at times, that hearing high school students mouth the lines makes them seem as if they're acting in a school play rather than sustaining the grand illusion of a cinematic reality. Even if they're supposed to be upper-crust kids who live in French-style mansions, their comportment is more like a bunch of thirtysomethings than teens who think about sex all the time. Then too, tonally it's so similar to Frears' version and Phillippe's performance is so clearly patterned after Malkovich's affected take on the Valmont character that it can either seem like an unintentional parody or a silly imitation of the adult version.
As in "Dangerous Liaisons," the plot turns around a bet involving sexual seduction. The catty and conniving Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) wagers that her stepbrother, Sebastian Valmont, can't bed a virgin who's saving herself for marriage. The prize? If he isn't successful, then Kathryn gets his Jaguar. If he does score with her, then he doubles his pleasure, because step-sis has promised a roll in the hay with her too--something she tells him she knows he's always wanted. As a side plot, Sebastian also tries to seduce dorky Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair) to get back at her mom for warning his intended target, Annette (Witherspoon), that he's a Casanova. Plus, it turns out that Cecile somehow managed to steal Kathryn's old boyfriend, so it's a double payback. The twist, when it comes, is whether all this seduction has actually resulted in real attraction and love, or whether it's all still part of these bored kids' entertainments. Got all that?
But the sexual games start right off the bat, as we see a psychiatrist (Swoosie Kurtz) treating Sebastian by handing him a copy of her parenting book, and it turns out he's already bedded her young-adult daughter as a way of undercutting the good doctor's arrogance. Sexual shenanigans, head games, and blackmail are the whole point of this film, and, frankly, if the actors were older and more innately sophisticated, we might actually believe it. But it's hard to follow "Dangerous Liaisons" plotlines with a cast that seems better suited to "Beverly Hills 90210."
If it wasn't for the fact that his performance was a rip-off of Malkovich's, Phillippe actually gives us a fairly interesting character--though Gellar seems far too immature to be his social or conspiratorial equal. Witherspoon is perfect as the naïve target, but watching her here you realize that she's still a long ways away from that Academy Award-winning performance she gave in "Walk the Line."
How you respond to this film will ultimately go back to the question I first posed. If you see it mostly as a dark teen sex comedy, it's actually not bad. But the screenplay and character interpretations are just too close to "Dangerous Liaisons" for me to think of it as anything but an earnest but overreaching kiddie version, with Malkovich and the adult actors giving much more believable and memorable performances. We learn on one of the bonus features that the screenplay was written over just a 12-day period. That's easy to imagine, given how similar it is to the 1988 film. "Cruel Intentions" is rated "R" for "strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language, and drug use."
"Cruel Intentions" looks sharp, especially in 1080p HD, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The colors are bright, and the level of detail is so strong that the picture looks like it has a high-gloss sheen, which is absolutely compatible with the world of plastic people that "Cruel Intentions" details. Black levels are strong, and even low-lit scenes retain so much detail that you can't help but marvel at the sharpness of the picture.
The featured audio is English PCM 5.1 uncompressed, with additional options in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1. As with the picture, it feels sharp and precise, with clear-as-a-bell tones and a nice balance of bass and treble and good distribution of sound across the speakers. I'm going to hurt my hand typing out all the subtitle options, though: English, English SDH, Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese (Brazilian), Portuguese (Portugal), Spanish, Thai, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovene, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Icelandic. Whew!
The filmmakers' commentary is crowded with people all reaching to slap each other on the backs for a job well done. If you can get past the self-congratulatory tone, there's a modicum of insight and information, but it's still a below-average commentary. Better is a brief making-of featurette and another on "finding a visual style" for this "modern-day period piece," as well a handful of deleted scenes playable with or without commentary. Every teen film needs a pop-rock soundtrack, and included in the bonus features are two music videos from the soundtrack, "Comin' Up from Behind" by Marcy Playground and "Every You Every Me" by Placebo.
Whether Phillippe's performance aped Malkovich's or paid tribute to it, there's still an uncomfortable sense of a boy wearing man's clothes. "Cruel Intentions" is more entertaining than the average teen fare, but that's not saying much.