Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Cruel Intentions (1999)

Cruel Intentions (1999)

Rated R for strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language and drug use

Score: 4 out of 5

Cruel Intentions is a twisted, trashy, over-the-top soap opera starring a host of '90s teen stars thrust into some fucked-up situations. Good taste goes flying out the window the second we see our "hero" trying to have sex with his therapist, who finds out soon after that he had humped and dumped her daughter upon receiving a tearful phone call from her. Throw in a main story built around semi-incest (hey, they're only stepsiblings) and a total lack of any parental figures, and you have a film where the only explanation I can think of for it getting a theatrical release and a big-name cast was the fact that it was adapted from a classic novel, Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos (albeit with a setting update to '90s New York) -- so your enjoyment of it makes you a connoisseur of fine art.

I had a goddamn blast.

If you go into Cruel Intentions expecting anything less than the sort of movie I just described, you'll probably be quick to dismiss it as softcore sleaze that doesn't even show any nudity -- and you may be right. I, however, had a pretty good idea of what the hell I was getting into, and reacted accordingly. This is pure soapy cheez-whiz from start to finish, but a great cast and a total commitment to what it is make it an outstanding example of such.

Our "protagonists", Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Merteuil, are a pair of rich, bored stepsiblings living in New York City, their parents currently away and leaving them to themselves, which is always such a great idea. Sebastian, a consummate man-whore, wants to deflower Annette Hargrove, the virginal, good-girl daughter of their elite private school's new headmaster, while Kathryn wants to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend Court Reynolds by ruining the reputation of his new girlfriend Cecile. The two of them make a sick bet: if Sebastian fails in his quest to sleep with Annette, then Kathryn gets his pride and joy, a classic '50s Jaguar XK140 roadster, but if he succeeds, then Kathryn will let him fuck her six ways from Sunday, finally giving him the one girl he could never bed. Sebastian's quest for virgin pussy (and that of his stepsister) crosses paths with Kathryn's quest for revenge when it becomes apparent that Cecile's mother has informed Annette of Sebastian's womanizing ways. Add in a closeted gay jock, Sebastian's journal of his sexual conquests, and what turns into genuine affection for Annette on his part, and things soon start getting out of control.

The people who make this work are, without a doubt, the three leads. Ryan Phillippe may not have shown the greatest range in the other films I've seen him in, but he was practically born to play Sebastian. From the moment he arrived on screen, the slimy awfulness oozed like lube from his performance, like a younger and less murderous version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, a sociopathic rich kid suffering from a bad case of affluenza who doesn't give two shits about the people he hurts. At the same time, however, Sebastian doesn't remain stuck in that mode forever, especially as he starts to realize that he actually loves Annette, and yet he still tries to maintain his facade of detachment in front of his stepsister. Phillippe does a bang-up job showcasing Sebastian's inner turmoil, as his bratty selfishness is challenged by real emotion. Sarah Michelle Gellar, meanwhile, is similarly phenomenal as Kathryn. Buffy Summers she ain't; whereas that character was witty, heroic, and kind of ditzy, Kathryn is an Upper East Side ice queen par excellence and almost as evil as some of the monsters that Buffy slayed. Her performance is downright smoldering hot even without showing much skin, adding to the utter wrongness of her relationship with Sebastian. Reese Witherspoon too does a great job of making Annette, the Christian girl from Kansas, feel utterly lost in the world of extreme wealth around her.

Everything else about the production values is pure '90s teen soap cheese, but it lends to the atmosphere the film was going for in the first place, so it fits right in. Being adapted from a work of classic literature meant that they didn't need to do much to get a decent story going beyond just having some decent actors. The direction is mostly workmanlike, doing little to elevate the material but not a whole lot to drag it down, either, there mostly to showcase the glamorous set design of the film's mansions, condos, offices, and swimming pools. Everybody involved felt like they knew that what they were doing had only the thinnest veneer of high art draped over it by its literary inspirations, but rather than turn that into an excuse to slack off and clock out, they decided that, if this film was gonna be ridiculous, then by God they were gonna let it be ridiculous. The end result of it all feels like a big-budget adaptation of any of the more over-the-top arcs on Passions, the gold standard for really loony '90s/'00s soap operas, but in this case, all the pieces came together just perfectly in a teen-friendly, but very much R-rated, display of decadence.

The Bottom Line

There's way more to this movie than just "so bad it's good". This is a movie that does exactly what it sets out to do, which is be a shallow, but massively entertaining, "lifestyles of the rich and famous" flick where layering on the cheese somehow only makes it a better film. My uncle said that the DVD cover for this looked like a porno, and even without any actual nudity, he wasn't far off -- but it was a classy porno. It's pure cheese, but it's a fine French cheese that you can tell yourself is superior.

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