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Tucson Weekly Pre-Adult Entertainment

'Cruel' Is Unusual Punishment.

MARCH 15, 1999:  YOU HEAR ABOUT it all the time--"kiddie" porn, i.e. the depiction of sexuality amongst the under-18 crowd. But have you ever actually seen it? It's sort of like UFOs...everyone knows someone who knows someone whose cousin gave a ride to a Mexican hairless dog that had seen a UFO, but nobody has any first-hand evidence.

How can we run a society based on the irrational fear of underage porn when there's so little to be found, wondered Cruel Intentions writer/director Roger Kumble. Seeking to rectify our collective ignorance, he grabbed a copy of thrice-filmed novel Les Liasons Dangereuses, and set to work making the first big-budget, soft-core, teen-porn film in the history of Hollywood (if you don't count Hook, Stephen Spielberg's NAMBLA-inspired update of Peter Pan). What a service he has rendered to our hysterical nation: With his tale of sexual antics amongst high-schoolers, we now can see just how sexy-hot and sleazy is this thing we are sworn to hate.

It's rare for a movie to be bad in an enjoyable way; mostly the powers that be in Southern California give us camp-free bad that simply bores us for a couple of hours and then goes away. But every now and then a Showgirls comes along to show us that bad acting and bizarre dialogue can make Vegas-style strip-club revues into an engaging art form. However, Cruel Intentions has Showgirls beat hands down: While the latter sleazefest had its dull moments mixed in with the unintentionally hilarious, Cruel Intentions is non-stop fun.

The story revolves around Kathryn Merteuil-Valmont and her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont, two highly debauched New York teenagers who are so pretty that no one cares that they're played in stilted, evil monotone by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe.

The plot begins when Sebastian bets Kathryn that he can make slow, gentle love with virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon). Annette has just written an article for Seventeen magazine wherein she says she won't make it with any boy she doesn't love. This passes for extreme morality in the world of Cruel Intentions, and such things are not to be tolerated by the pouty-faced Sebastian.

Kathryn sets the terms of the bets: If Sebastian fails to initiate Annette into womanhood before the next semester starts, he must give his 1956 Mercedes Roadster to his evil stepsister. If he manages to have his pretty way with young Annette, he can have his sister Kathryn for dessert.

Sebastian isn't sold on the idea, as he thinks his car may be more valuable than incestuous tail, so Kathryn sweetens the pot by adding, "You can put it anywhere you want." This convinces Sebastian that the bet would be the best thing for everyone involved, and he immediately sets to work.

Ryan Phillippe is perfect in the role of Sebastian. Only an actor with no talent other than his angelic beauty could get away with uttering lines like, "I'm so sick of sleeping with these Manhattan debutantes...." It's hard to imagine that any director could see Phillippe's beautiful face spouting his incompetent reading of this trite dialogue without yelling, "Thanks, now could you just shut up and take your shirt off?"

Sarah Michelle Gellar also gets to throw out a few howlers, like when she tells Sebastian, "Silly rabbit, you're just a little toy I like to play with...." Sarah Michelle's version of bad acting involves hamming up her 17-year-old character like one of the femme fatales that Joan Collins played when she was in her 50s. I'm sure Pierre Ambroise Choderlos De Laclos, author of the novel Les Liasons Dangereuses, would have enjoyed seeing Sarah Michell Gellar in the role he created, because he, too, came from a time when people had at least three names.

Still, the sleaziest scenes of the film belong to the simply named Selma Blair, of TV's Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane. She plays 14-year-old Cecille Caldwell, who Sebastian and Kathryn carnalize for the fun of it. First Kathryn convinces Cecille that all girls practice kissing with their friends, so why not have some close up, open mouthed, lesbian make-out scenes? Then Sebastian lures Cecille to his room late at night, and blackmails her into a sexual encounter by threatening to tell her mommy that she's out past curfew.

Blair plays Cecille as a girly goofball, always playing with dolls, accidentally showing her panties and hopping into headstands to impress her music teacher. Her rubbery-faced mugging in imitation of an uncomfortable early-adolescent makes for some of the most perverse sex-scenes ever filmed. Her best bit comes when she describes the "weird feelings" she had when Sebastian was "doing things" to her. Kathryn tells her that what she was feeling was an orgasm, and that now she's a woman. "Wow!" she says, "It's like being in a secret club!"

Lots of other little touches put Cruel Intentions over the top: the overwrought soundtrack, Witherspoon's camel-toe pants, a crucifix necklace that holds a stash of cocaine, and inexplicable dialogue like, "Keep your legs together! This isn't Jamaica!"

But most of all it's the idea of making Pierre Ambroise Choderlos De Laclos' very adult drama into a teen film, because there's nothing that makes prom night so special as the promise of sex between 17-year-old siblings.

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