A high school send-up more gleefully incorrect than Heathers and considerably less articulate than
Election, Pretty Persuasion is a hand grenade lobbed at no place in particular. After being fired from her role as Anne Frank in the school play, Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) enlists her friends to corroborate a false sexual assault claim against their drama teacher (Ron Livingston). Preposterously, she plans to leverage her ensuing fame into TV stardom (as opposed to recurring appearances in the New York Post?). Spectators view the case with a similar amount of cynicism, from Kimberly’s slur-spouting, womanizing dad (James Woods) to an ambitious news reporter (Jane Krakowski) to the accused’s wife (Selma Blair), weary of her husband’s very real fantasies about his students.
Everyone’s a hypocrite—a lesson the filmmakers could easily extend to themselves. Much as it wants to be a satire (smugly self-aware, the movie posts a definition of the term on a blackboard), Pretty Persuasion is at heart an exploitation film. It revels in the shock value of, say, an Arab girl (Adi Schnall) watching Titty Lickers 2 and asking questions about anal sex, but never unites its targets into anything resembling a statement. Writer Skander Halim distributes his disdain evenly, at least until he makes a bizarre plea for sympathy in the final minutes. Ostensibly a critique of intolerance, the movie invites chuckling at a wheelchair-bound prosecutor (or at least scolds its audience for thinking the handicap incongruous) and is in fact predicated on a streak of misogyny. For girls, one teacher says, “High school is all Cockteasing 101.” Marcos Siega’s direction is alternately shrill and listless; indeed, Wood mutters most of her Clueless-style tour of the school’s cliques. Offhand references to metal detectors, the war in Iraq, and the
Israel-Palestine conflict exist to provide topicality—which only makes the film seem more timid for not taking a stand. Comedy is hard; contempt is easy. Or as the movie’s Columbine gunman says, “Just like shooting ducks in a carnival.”