Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of teens? Obviously not director/writer Roger Kumble, whose modernization of the classic "Les Liasons Dangereuse" finds a pair of snobbish step-siblings playing sexual mind games far out of the realm of even the most jaded 20-somethings. But even with its absurdities, "Cruel Intentions" sets course with a wickedly fun tone.
Lounging around the Upper East Side mansion of their absent parents, and looking like they could be the bastard children of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in "The Hunger," horny Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and his equally libidinous step-sis Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) hatch a plan of seduction guaranteed to liven up their morally empty lives.
After reading a teen-mag article by a vehement virgin, who they find out will be a newcomer at their prep school, the little devils place a bet on whether Sebastian will be able to deflower the firmly frigid Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). If Sebastian succeeds, he will at last have the chance to put it to sis. And if he fails, Kathryn will finally get her hands on Sebastian's pride and joy, his prized antique roadster.
Thrown into the game is Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair, looking like the chubbier younger sister of Liv Tyler), an awkward adolescent whose mother (played brilliantly by Christine Baranski) has mistakenly chosen Kathryn as her daughter's role model. Seizing upon the girl's naivete, and carrying a vendetta (due to an arranged pairing between Cecile and a boy who had dumped her), Kathryn quickly proceeds to teach the nubile teen the fine art of French kissing in a scene that'll thrill the legions of Gellar's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" admirers.
This is only a warm-up to an equally devious seduction of Cecile by Sebastian, who serves his gullible mark one too many iced teas of the Long Island variety and shows her joys of the flesh that she soon craves to extremes. Exceedingly adept in the art of comic timing, Blair steals the film with her descent into depravity.
Even though the first half of the film is uneven, its semisatirical view of sexual awakening and manipulation is ultimately sold out when Sebastian sincerely falls for Annette. Phillippe's warped but strangely likeable character makes a too-abrupt about-face when his thoughts shift from his crotch to his heart, leaving us missing the slimy bastard that he was.
What the film lacks in consistency of directorial style it definitely makes up for in sleek and stylish production values, with the sets all but dripping with the greedy richness that rules these characters.
Among the few adults in the cast, both Baranski and Swoosie Kurtz, as an unknowing victim of Sebastian's wiles, make the most of their roles. But Louise Fletcher's poorly acted turn as Sebastian's aunt makes it hard to believe that this woman ever received an Academy Award for best actress in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."
There's no doubt that the film will draw teens, clamoring for this WB-gone-hardcore production. Mature viewers will find more low-grade titillation than high-grade titters in yet another wasted exercise in the modernization of the classics.