Film: Just Kidding

Hollywood does only three things consistently well: light comedy, film noir, and the western. (Star Wars is a western.) At their best, these stylized genres serve as masks of deniability behind which intelligent filmmakers hide their heterodoxies. The gods of the Copybook Headings may have been driven from the public square, but turn back the clock to high noon at the O.K. Corral, or 3 a.m. in Chandlerland, and you can say any-thing you want, no matter how inflammatory. Smile when you say it, and you can even dare to whisper the last unspeakable four-letter word: evil.

Evil, of course, has no acknowledged place at the table in Hollywood, where liberalism is rampant and earthly perfection a simple matter of surgery, be it plastic or psychic. Yet in the parallel universe of the genre film, unspeakably bad people do unequivocally bad things, and good people try not to let them get away with it. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist turned serial killer who is confined to a maximum-security cell in an insane asylum, firmly insists that he isn’t crazy; he’s evil: “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism … nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?” To be sure, this speech comes directly from Thomas Harris’ original novel, but Jonathan Demme had the nerve to put it into the film more or less verbatim, where it stands as a permanent reproach to the makers of ostensibly “serious” films from which evil has been banished, in much the same way that Hazel Motes, the hero malgre lui of Wise Blood, left the most important part out of his Church Without Christ.

Roger Kumble is no Jonathan Demme, and Cruel Intentions, in which Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is transplanted from 18th-century France to New York’s Upper East Side and the correspondents changed from decadent aristocrats to rich preppies, is—to put it mildly—a bit of a mess. But Kumble does manage to say a few smart things about the lives of modern American teenagers, in part because his script, like the great cautionary tale on which it is based, makes no bones about the fact that its principal characters are up to no good.

In Cruel Intentions, the Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil become Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and his bitchy step-sister Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and their arch repartee is translated into it’s-like-you-know banter, some of it mildly witty (“E-mail is for geeks and pedophiles”), some hopelessly lame (“Our Don Juan is moving with the speed of a Special Olympics hurdler”). Otherwise, the film sticks closely to its model: Kathryn bets Sebastian that he can’t deflower Annette (Reese Witherspoon), the famously demure daughter of the new headmaster, offering to sleep with him herself if he succeeds. Annette eventually succumbs to Sebastian’s charms, at which point he spurns her, realizing too late that she is the only girl he has ever loved. He dies, and Kathryn is disgraced.

As this bald summary suggests, Cruel Intentions is based less on Choderlos de Laclos than Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears’s 1988 film version, of which it is a scene-by-scene imitation (further proof, if it were needed, that Generation X doesn’t read books). But the first part comes off more like a Saturday Night Live parody of Dangerous Liaisons than a carefully considered attempt to create a contemporary equivalent of either film or novel. Not only is the script uncertain in tone, but neither of the leads is sufficiently seductive to be credible. Philippe is no good at all—he seems to be trying to emulate both John Malkovich and Keanu Reeves—and Gellar, the star of television’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, isn’t much better. This would have been less of a problem had Kumble treated his sources more freely (Sebastian and Kathryn, after all, are mere children), but by remaining so faithful to Frears-de Laclos, Cruel Intentions creates expectations that its feather-weight cast is incapable of fulfilling.

With the arrival of the excellent Reese Witherspoon, however, the parodistic touches dry up and the script starts to pull itself together. Kumble has put some thought into creating an adolescent equivalent of Madame de Tourvel, and the result is a character who is both clever and believable. Annette is a Wendy Shalit-like maiden from Kansas who wears one-piece bathing suits and has published an article in Seventeen called “A Virgin’s Manifesto: ‘I’ll Wait.'” That Sebastian should succeed in persuading her to stop waiting simply by trotting out the old you-would-if-you-loved-me line is not quite convincing, but Witherspoon is a strong enough actress to make her surrender believable: You can tell that she is genuinely stirred by him, and when he turns his back on her, the pain and confusion she feels are all too vividly real.

It is at this moment that you begin to see how good a film Cruel Intentions might have been. All at once, what started out as a piece of pretentious trash has acquired an emotional center; even Sebastian ceases to be a stick figure once we get a look at his journal, which is written in the unformed scrawl of an innocent boy who has gotten in over his head. Alas, this shift of gears takes place too late to save the picture, and the climax (Sebastian is squashed by a taxicab while trying to make amends) is so ineptly contrived that the youthful audience in the theater where I saw the movie laughed heartlessly. Still, one comes away feeling that Kumble has at least tried to make a morally honest film—I can’t think of a Hollywood movie since Uncle Buck in which a young girl’s virginity was portrayed as anything other than a temporary impediment to bliss—and Witherspoon’s touching performance could have come straight out of the pages of A Return to Modesty.

Harold Ramis’ Analyze This is also full of missed chances, though it doesn’t fail in its first responsibility, which is to be amusing. The premise is simple: Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro), a New York mob boss who finds himself suffering from incapacitating anxiety attacks, decides to seek help from Ben Sobol (Billy Crystal), an uptight psychotherapist. What follows is almost painfully obvious, but much of the dialogue is funny (“I go fag, you die,” Vitti warns Sobol at their first session), and De Niro is shrewd enough to play Vitti dead straight, which makes it even funnier. Add in a fine supporting cast, including the wonderful Lisa Kudrow as Sobol’s fiancee, and you get an hour and a half’s worth of solid comedy.

What Ramis doesn’t supply, unfortunately, is anything beyond the easiest of laughs. On paper, Analyze This may look like a black comedy, and certainly a great many people get killed in it. But black comedy pre-supposes moral awareness, and Analyze This is not a satire, but a bloodless spoof, one of a peculiarly postmodern kind: We are laughing not at Paul Vitti, but at Robert De Niro playing Paul Vitti. That Vitti happens to be a full-fledged gangster—that he murders people in cold blood—is never taken seriously at all.

What the movie does take seri-ously, unlikely as it may sound, are the values of therapy. Initially, Vitti pokes coarse fun at Sobol’s psychobabble, but by film’s end he has actually become a caring, sensitive, ’90s kind of guy one whose consciousness has been raised to the point that he decides to retire from the Mafia and become a family man.

Interestingly, this is one mistake Roger Kumble doesn’t make. Yes, Sebastian Valmont is in therapy, but his therapist (Swoosie Kurtz, who also appeared in Dangerous Liaisons— an unexpectedly elegant piece of casting) is an obvious fraud. She assures him in the very first scene that his scurrilous behavior is not his own fault, but the result of “bad parenting,” and he responds by treating her with the icy contempt she so clearly deserves. Indeed, the spoiled brats of Cruel Intentions have no more use for psychoanalysis than they do for Christianity (Kathryn keeps her cocaine in a hollow crucifix). Not so Harold Ramis, who knows that in Hollywood, it’s far more blasphemous to knock Freud than God.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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