"Cruel Intentions" is the dirtiest-minded American movie in recent memory -- and an honestly corrupt entertaining picture is never anything to sneeze at. The milieu for this reworking of Choderlos de Laclos' novel "Les liaisons dangereuses" is the swanky Manhattan digs of unbelievably rich private-school kids, and the director, Roger Kumble, works it like an upstart hustler who's managed to get his foot in the door. He's got the instincts of an especially clever exploitation filmmaker and, for the first two-thirds of the movie, they turn out to be good instincts. Kumble knows that in any successful translation of de Laclos' novel, the casually venomous amorality of its two scheming monsters, Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, has to carry a jolt. We need to laugh at the same time as we're shocked. Kumble manages that largely by not playing coy.
Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the Merteuil role) and her stepbrother Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe, in the Valmont role) are purring little narcissists with a snobbish taste for the finer things, a need to gain the upper hand on each other and an insatiable itch in their privates. Every conversation they have seems to take place in an atmosphere of icy lubricity. The joke here is the contrast between the sophisticated trappings of their lives and their unscrupulous, foul-mouthed manner. Their minds are in the gutters, but they manage to lounge around their expensive Upper East Side apartment without leaving a trail of slime on the French Provincial furniture. When Kathryn is trying to lure Sebastian into a bet that requires him to seduce the new girl at school, Reese Witherspoon's Annette, a self-proclaimed virgin willing to wait for Mr. Right, she clinches it by offering herself as the prize and promising, "You can put it anywhere." Without missing a beat, Sebastian replies, "You got yourself a bet, baby."
De Laclos was out to shock 18th century France. A late-20th century movie audience might seem a tougher proposition. But not really. Our movies are so moralistic that things in them that would have seemed almost commonplace 25 years ago are now so uncommon, their mere appearance can carry a jolt. Kumble is out to piss on propriety. Near the beginning, Kathryn fingers the cross around her neck as she talks about turning to Jesus for strength. Alone, she unscrews the cross to reveal a tiny spoon and a vial of coke. Kumble takes particular delight in debauching Kathryn's younger cousin Cecile, played by Selma Blair, who looks like a more puppyish Liv Tyler and whose pouty friskiness gets a fair share of the movie's laughs. He shows Cecile getting kissing lessons from Kathryn, getting nuzzled by her black cello teacher and getting her first oral sex from Sebastian. She likes it all (almost too well -- when she pesters Sebastian for more, he literally tosses her out of bed). It's as if, before Kumble wrote a line of his screenplay, he vowed to include everything that invites censoriousness in today's movies -- drug use, gay sex, interracial sex, teenage sex. (I wish he weren't so corsetted about nudity, though perhaps his young cast demurred.)
At times Kumble tries too hard (as when Sebastian's gay friend -- Joshua Jackson of "Dawson's Creek" -- says of the star football player, a closeted gay, "The man's got a mouth like a Hoover"), and when he does, "Cruel Intentions" just seems calculatedly crass. Even at its best, it's nowhere near the level of the de Laclos novel, or of Stephen Frears' 1988 film (based on the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage production), probably the liveliest costume drama ever made. (Sebastian's confession "I'm totally fucked up" just ain't a match for John Malkovich's Valmont repeating, "It's beyond my control.") It isn't even in a league with Roger Vadim's clever and chic 1959 version, set among the French bourgeoisie, starring Gerard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau and featuring music by Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. You don't really believe the milieu, in which there's hardly an adult in sight, for an instant. The movie offers a fantasy of rich living, a cold one. You bask in the moneyed surroundings while not envying the monsters their lot. "Cruel Intentions" is a slick, blatantly commercial picture, as obvious as the way Kumble lingers on the bodies of his young actors. But Kumble's flouting of taboo is pleasurably nasty. For the first hour, "Cruel Intentions" clears away all the stuffy morality that's a drag at the movies.
What Kumble can't do is carry off the transition when Sebastian catches himself falling in love with Annette and finds his whole existence is threatened because of that. That's really no disgrace; it's one of the trickiest tone shifts imaginable. But the movie's pleasures up to that point have all been shallow, and when it needs to get us involved in Sebastian's feelings for Annette, there's nothing for it to draw on. The last half hour drags on, sluggishly proceeding according to the designs of the plot (the climactic scenes play like bad camp). And while the jadedness of the teenage characters has been amusing, the world-weariness of this section sits falsely on them. Gellar and Phillippe (who seems alive for the first time on-screen, something you couldn't say about his performances in "54" and "Playing by Heart"), who have been such lively, bitchy, fun to watch -- especially Gellar, whom it's a treat to get to see play mean -- suddenly seem stuck playacting roles much too old for them.
Witherspoon works in exactly the opposite way, though that shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen her amazing performances in "Freeway" or "Twilight" or "Pleasantville." Her Annette starts out as a joke, one of the Wendy Shalit pods running around proclaiming her virtue. But Witherspoon creates a character whose sense of self is entirely founded on her integrity. So when she gives into Sebastian and then sees him withdraw from her, she really does seem to have surrendered the most precious part of herself for naught. There's a sharp, painful moment when Sebastian tells Annette, "This isn't working out for me anymore," and she replies, "Yeah, me neither" as she breaks into one of those trademark Witherspoon wised-up smiles and moves in for a kiss. "Cruel Intentions" is a naughty surprise, a bitch-chic teen movie with enough effrontery to provoke some genuine shock. But the toll of the game in human terms is visible only in Reese Witherspoon's face.