Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Cruel Intentions

By Marc Savlov

MARCH 8, 1999: 

D: Roger Kumble; with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid, Swoosie Kurtz, Sean Patrick Thomas, Louise Fletcher. (R, 95 min.)

The lure of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses proves irresistible for a fourth film rendition as the novel is adapted for the high-school set and given the same update treatment recently afforded Great Expectations and Romeo and Juliet. It works only sporadically, and more as a comic outing than as a vicious battle of sexual predation. Phillippe, with that pouty lower lip that might be better put to use as the prow of a polar icebreaker, plays Sebastian Valmont, the achingly bored Upper East Side poor-little-rich-Lothario who concedes to a hellish wager with his equally treacherous half-sister Kathryn (Gellar): If he can deflower virginal Annette (Witherspoon) before the onset of the school year, he wins a night with sis, and if Kathryn can turn her ex's new girlfriend Cecile (Blair) into a notorious slut, she wins his '54 Jag. On such familial firefights are great works of art founded -- there's no question that the source novel is a great, rich, sink-your-teeth-into-it-and-chew-away work for actors and directors alike. Of all the principals involved in this production, though, only Blair, as the dizzy, boy-crazy Cecile has any spark. The awakening of her sexuality is done as a comic romp, with much rolling of eyes, squeaky utterances, and weak-in-the-knees outbursts. In fact, Blair's performance here is a comic tour de force; she's far and away the best thing in Kumble's film, a potty gamine manhandled into adulthood by her domineering, society mother (Baranski) and the disreputable Valmont. Gellar's Kathryn is another matter. Both she and Phillippe seem ready, willing, and able to essay these scurrilous characters, but their interaction has the dull ring of fallacy to it. They plot and scheme and make outlandish sexual advances toward each other, but like the faces they show to the world at large, it all feels coolly false. Despite the steaming heaps of innuendo and sexual brinkmanship, this brother and sister for the incest set just don't smolder like they ought to. Witherspoon, too, is off-base. The flagrant one-dimensionality of Annette -- she's so chaste she's actually won an award in Seventeen with an essay on the importance of purity -- grates maddeningly; by the time she finally has it out with Valmont you're ready to slap her silly. Apart from Blair's riotous performance, the only other inspired work comes from the lavish production design by Jon Gary Steele, who surrounds the cast with lush, toney baronial halls and outfits that call to mind a pair of the Valmont's film predecessors -- Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie's vampiric society bloodsuckers in The Hunger. A vampire by any other name remains a vampire no matter what they suck -- it just helps when the film in question doesn't blow.
1.5 stars

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