Rancid high school satire can't seem to figure out who it hates
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Marcos Siega
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Ron Livingston, James Woods
Director Marcos Siega has your typical Hollywood resume: He directed a bunch of music videos (Blink 182, 311, Weezer), cranked out a couple TV show episodes (“Fastlane,” “Veronica Mars”), tried his hand at a hip indie film (Pretty Persuasion), then got roped into directing some generic vehicle for tween star Nick Cannon (the blink-and-you-missed-it Underclassman). It's hard to tell which came first, Siega's hip vanity project or his summer movie sellout. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Pretty Persuasion, hitting theaters on the not-so-hot heels of Underclassman, does everything it can to score cred as a sharp black satire for snarky high schoolers. Unfortunately, Pretty Persuasion goes to a well already tapped-out by the likes of Heathers, Election, Cruel Intentions, Mean Girls and countless others.
It's not that Siega lacks skills. He's certainly got an eye for talent, recruiting the likes of Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), Ron Livingston (Swingers), James Woods (Salvador), Jane Krakowski (“Ally McBeal”), Selma Blair (Hellboy) and Jaime King (Sin City) to fill out his cast. But his choice and treatment of scripts leaves something to be desired. First-time scripter Skander Halim raids his DVD collection, pulling choice bits from previous high school-set satires and stitching them together with his own rancid sense of humor.
Wood headlines as Kimberly Joyce, privileged daughter to discount electronics king Hank Joyce (James Woods at his foul-mouthed best/worst). Fifteen-year-old Kimberly attends an upscale prep school in Beverly Hills where she dreams of becoming an actress. (“You don't have to study to be an actress,” seems to be her driving rationale.) One day, she gloms on to shy new Muslim student Randa (Adi Schnall) and folds her into her tiny clique alongside best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois, “All My Children”).
The film bumbles along, dishing out assorted un-p.c. observations about stupid jocks, anal sex, lesbians, bimbos, pedophilia, media manipulation, Middle East politics, academics and bestiality. Neither Siega nor Salim seem like dumb boys. In fact, I suspect they're too clever for their own good. The dialogue in Pretty Persuasion tries way too hard to mix the sophisticated wit of Dorothy Parker with the raunchy, offend-'em-all humor of “South Park.” As a result, nine out of 10 jokes fall with a dull thud to the floor of the theater. (“Mr. Anderson is pretty weird. Especially around the girls. We think he's a podiatrist,” reads one of the film's typical constructions.)
The film thinks it's making some sort of point by allowing characters to spout all manner of racist, homophobic, sexist jokes. “We're so far above this, we can make fun of it,” the filmmakers seem to be saying. But they aren't. In fact, they're more than happy to wallow in toxic clichés about “money-grabbing Jew shysters” and “carpet-munching dykes.” Jokes that should be quick and shocking instead feel hollow and self-satisfied.
The film's eventual plot has Kimberly and her compatriots concocting an elaborate sexual harassment claim against their slightly pervy English teacher Mr. Anderson (Livingston). About halfway through, the film degenerates into a standard-issue courtroom drama. Obsessed with its own “clever” twists and turns, Halim's script forgets to develop the characters much beyond their misanthropic caricatures and settles into a finger-shaking “we're all hypocrites and sinners” mood.
The bright spot here is Wood, who tears into her part, proving--beyond a shadow of a doubt--that she's one of the movie industry's most up-and-coming young talents. Too bad this film didn't give her more to work with. Kimberly is your basic manipulative, fame-hungry witch, who controls those around her through sex, intimidation and popularity. By the time we get around to learning Kimberly's rather predictable and fairly uninteresting motivation, we're beyond caring.
Trying to drive home the point that high school is just a microcosm for society at large, the filmmakers drop assorted topical touchstones. Images of Columbine and mentions of the Gulf War seem to add sociological import to the film, but really only succeed in making it more scattershot and exploitative. Satire needs to function like a sniper rifle, not like a grenade launcher. If only the makers of Pretty Persuasion had bothered to pick their targets before pulling the trigger, we might have had a reason not to stay home and watch our well-worn copy of Heathers instead.
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