Insincere Insincerity

Cruel Intentions

Most hot young actors wouldn’t dare trying to play vacuous, affected, manipulative, selfish, back-stabbing rich kids. It would look too much like reality.

Ryan Phillippe, though, is one of our great screen artists. He has the guts to play a vacuous, affected, manipulative, selfish, back-stabbing rich kid, and to avoid the criticism that he is simply being himself, he decides to play the role badly. Is it possible to play insincerity insincerely? Yes. And does that then make it honest? Absolutely, Phillippe proves in an acting coup.

In Cruel Intentions, Phillippe is Sebastian, a rich brat whose goal in life is to have sex with as many girls as possible. But this bores our hero, who has found a new, more noble challenge. He shows his coke-snorting step-sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a worn copy of Seventeen, in which “Annette” pledges to wait until marriage before sex. And she just happens to be coming to the step-siblings’ school. Sebastian swears he will have her.

(What, you might ask, is a well-sexed boy such as Sebastian doing with a copy of Seventeen? The movie wisely never tells. Such ambiguity turns what could have been a mere prop into a brave artistic choice.)

Anyway, Kathryn proposes a bet. If Sebastian can take the virgin out of Annette (Reese Witherspoon), he can also have Kathryn. (The two have been fondling each other for years anyway, so it seems to me a natural outgrowth of their relationship.) If he loses, she gets his Jaguar. Now I’m not a car person, but even I recognize this as a bad bet. Sebastian, however, accepts the wager.

At first, Annette is cold to Sebastian, well aware of his reputation. But then he laughs at her funny faces, and she touches his hand, and they’re in love. Most movies prefer affection to grow slowly, but Cruel Intentions understands that true love and commitment happen instantaneously.

This sudden development, though, puts Sebastian in a bit of a quandary. If he loves Annette, shouldn’t he preserve her well-publicized purity? And if they do have sex, will he collect his just reward from Kathryn? I can relate, brother.

It’s a nasty game of double-crosses, plot twists, and emotional manipulation. Roger Kumble wrote and directed Cruel Intentions, which, out of modesty, he says was “suggested” by some Frenchy book. Kumble could have played the material for shocks and surprises, but he doesn’t stoop to such lowbrow tactics. Instead, he allows the audience to figure out exactly what’s going to happen before it happens, and viewers are left holding their collective breath in anticipation.

The deliberate style also allows the audience to delve deep into the characters’ psyches. We learn universal lessons about the players, and ourselves. Kathryn is so emotionally barren that the only way she can express her love for Sebastian is to tell him he can put it anywhere he wants. So sad. And Sebastian, sweet Sebastian, is so trusting deep down that he knows Annette will take him back if she only reads his journal, which details each of his sexual encounters. Who wouldn’t run to his open arms?

The performers turn in some great work. Sebastian might be emotionally cloaked, but Phillippe shows the character’s depth by baring his firm buttocks. And Witherspoon performs the amazing feat of keeping her nipples hidden during her sex scene, proving that although Annette has lost her cherry (the film’s sly fruit metaphor, probably lost on the audience), she still has her modesty.

It’s an artistic triumph in every way. From the movie’s conception to its deep, rich execution, Cruel Intentions begs the question: Why didn’t anybody think of this before?

Ah the fine recolections that are rebrought to my attention, especially at the depth and personality revealing moment seen in that first buttock cheek. I thought I was the only one to grasp such subtle nuance, Snob. I top my hat to you, you are indeed a conaisseur.

Phillippe has more acting talent in his ass cheeks than the rest of Hollywood combined.

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