Cruel Intentions

on March 05, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
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It's difficult to accept that Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" really needed to be made again. Considering that Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman comprised the cast of the stellar 1988 version, "Cruel Intentions" appears to be nothing more than a grab bag of today's hottest young stars selling sex to the teen demo that's been dominating the boxoffice. The reality is, however, that writer/director Roger Kumble has assembled not just stars, but talent who lend the material and characters the depth they deserve.
   Sarah Michelle Gellar (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Ryan Phillippe ("Playing By Heart") star as step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian, whose parents' enigmatic absence leaves them plenty of freedom to do whatever they want in their posh Manhattan digs. What they want to do is have sex. More specifically, they want to use sex--their only real source of power--to punish those who've wronged them or simply as a personal challenge.
   Kathryn's current scheme is to ruin Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair of TV's "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane"), whose innocence has stolen Kathryn's beau away. Sebastian agrees to help by deflowering the delicate bud once he finds out Cecile's mother has interfered with his own pet project: conquering the new headmaster's virginal daughter Annette ("Pleasantville's" Reese Witherspoon), whose manifesto on why she's waiting for marriage graces the pages of Seventeen. Kathryn doubts that even her searingly seductive step-brother can pull this one off, betting him his Porsche that he'll fail. If Sebastian succeeds, however, he'll get a roll in the hay with the one woman he's never had a chance with: Kathryn.
   Gellar's really back in her element here after a sorry romantic turn in "Simply Irresistible." Kathryn's inner strength and steely resolve recall the self-reliant Buffy, though the slayer fights for good, and Kathryn generally does not. At times, a single look on Gellar's face betrays her character's forced determination or horrifying humiliation. Kathryn's practicing her own brand of feminism here, insisting that it's not fair that she gets dumped for the innocent twits while Sebastian gets to play around all he wants. She takes matters into her own hands, playing the role of the docile girlfriend (chiming "Call me!" at a departing lover) while playing her own game of deceit and revenge. Ultimately, though, Kathryn's really just a kid, despite her unreal sexual maturity, and she hurts because she's hurting.
   All of this manages to go down with a fair amount of style. Gellar and Phillippe are robed in dark colors and rich fabrics that betray their wealth as well as their cruel intentions, while Witherspoon dresses in unflattering whites and pastels appropriate for her chastity. The soundtrack heightens the scenes' sensuality without getting distracting.
   But it's the dialogue that really distinguishes this from the usual banal teen fare. Biting one-liners thrive in this lusty script and leave little to the imagination, from "Down, boy!" to "The only reason I let him keep up this charade is because the man has a mouth like a Hoover." On the more complex side, Phillippe delivers an "I care" that's sympathetic and sarcastic simultaneously, divulging how he really feels while he's playing his seductive game.
   It's this duplicity that leads to Kathryn and Sebastian's respective downfalls. What they're doing and what they're feeling are two very different things, and Gellar and Phillippe are magnificent in allowing those inner emotions to poke through without sacrificing their characters' tenacious exteriors. Their accomplishments in these multi-layered roles convey not only the quality of de Laclos material but their own aptitude as actors. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair. Written and directed by Roger Kumble. Produced by Neal H. Moritz. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language and drug use. Running time: 96 min.
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