The premise of Cruel Intentions— a retread of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with high-school kids— can be distilled to a single joke: 18th-century French aristocrats and spoiled 20th-century Manhattan teens have more in common than you’d think. Both inhabit social realms distinguished by fragile reputations, highly developed carnal appetites, and petty, savage head games. Though writer-director Roger Kumble doesn’t fully exploit this conceit, Cruel Intentions is still briskly enjoyable, what people might call a “guilty pleasure”— only it’s the sort of film that would mock anyone who felt guilt in pleasure.
The source material (a novel by Choderlos de Laclos) has already spawned three movies— Roger Vadim’s moody 1959 update, Milos Forman’s frisky Valmont, and Stephen Frears’s robust adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play. Next to these, Cruel Intentions doesn’t come off badly. Kumble deftly negotiates the plot convolutions, preserving the story’s headlong momentum, if not its psychological complexity.
The two protagonists— who coldly fuck and mindfuck their way through high society before they’re thwarted by unexpectedly genuine romantic pangs— are former lovers in the original; Kumble heightens the erotic charge between them and renders it vaguely taboo by making them step-siblings, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe. The corruption of a pure maiden (Reese Witherspoon) is still central to their schemes, though here the victim’s chastity is public knowledge thanks to her “Virgin’s Manifesto” in Seventeen.
Cruel Intentions is as eager to provoke as it is to please— Gellar has some vicious one-liners (“You’re moving at the speed of a Special Olympics hurdler”); black and gay characters are trotted out for some knowing stereotype tinkering— and it’s a questionable strategy. A more fundamental problem, though, is that Kumble’s screenplay isn’t sufficiently liberating. His characters are nominally high-schoolers, but the action unfolds in Upper East Side townhouses and Long Island mansions (over summer break). There’s a residual drawing-room archness to the dialogue, which is more outright filthy than actually funny. Cruel Intentions isn’t entirely even in tone, either, flirting with camp, anti-p.c. comedy, teensploitation, and earnest romance; as such, the final tragedy doesn’t resonate as it should (though, always ready with a smirk, Kumble may not want it to).
In the end, the principals are what make the film. Gellar is unflappable (and, to her credit, doesn’t merely do a Glenn Close or, God forbid, a Shannen Doherty). It’s the Valmont role that’s the litmus test, though— would all these women fall for this shit? The question has come up in every previous version, but Phillippe’s supremely cocksure performance dismisses it out of hand. The movie itself has a similarly irresistible confidence— it knows it’s basically a cheap thrill, and sees no shame in that.
On paper, Relax . . . It’s Just Sex, a queerish L.A. ensemble comedy, is one of those “dating in the ’90s” movies that has little, if anything, to say, and thinks it can get by on witty small talk. There’s even a character whose dialogue consists almost entirely of movie references. But writer-director P.J. Castellaneta gives his moderately engaging material the right affectionate touch, and the film succeeds on the sheer force of its good nature.
Relax opens promisingly with a mock-educational segment introducing viewers to “lipstick lesbians” and “gym queens,” followed by an amusingly involved to-swallow-or-not bedroom dilemma faced by the luckless central character Vince (a charismatic Mitchell Anderson). The movie quickly becomes a lightweight La Ronde, tracking the romantic exploits of a demographically balanced group of friends, with Jennifer Tilly as the gossipy fag-hag mother hen. There’s one jarring scene midway in which Vince is gay-bashed. Horny, drunk, enraged, not only does he fight back, he rapes his attacker. It’s an absurd, shocking reaction, which Castellaneta glibly parlays into a plot device and ultimately glosses over. But the image and the complicated response it evokes stay with you— if only the film had the nerve to follow through.