Shakespeare's having a very good spring, what with the recent Oscar wins and all. But as Jane Austen, the It Brit of a few seasons back, could have told him, you're nobody in Hollywood till they've made a teen comedy based on one of your works. For Austen, it was "Clueless," Amy Heckerling's 1995 valley girl update of "Emma." And now for the Bard, there's "10 Things I Hate About You," an exuberant and surprisingly sweet adolescent take on "The Taming of the Shrew."
Although "Shrew" is easily one of Shakespeare's funniest works, it's also one of the hardest for modern audiences to wrap their egalitarian sensibilities around. It's the story of a difficult young woman who's not just tamed, but psychologically tormented into loving surrender. For all the play's 16th century genius, its Stepford wife-style emotional lobotomizing doesn't quite float in the contemporary high school genre. So instead, "10 Things" is a classic comedy of misunderstandings, false starts and, eventually, true love -- all tempered with the very 20th century point of view that if the guy is strong enough, the girl doesn't need to be weak.
At the beginning of the story, Katarina Stratford (Julia Stiles) isn't just a willful aficionado of chick rock and Sylvia Plath. She is, in the words of her own guidance counselor, a "heinous bitch." To be sure, Kat does have an attitude problem, the kind that's already resulted in a few classroom outbursts and a fellow student injury or two. Normally, a walking temper tantrum of her caliber could be left alone to stew in her own venomous juices, but Kat's got something her classmates want -- Bianca, her giggly little hottie of a baby sister. And since the girls' overprotective, paranoid dad (Larry Miller) won't let Bianca date until Kat does, it becomes a matter of some importance around Padua High to get Kat a boyfriend. All Bianca's would-be suitors need to do is find a guy who's as scary as her sister is. Luckily, the brooding Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) has just shown up in town. He smokes and hangs out in biker bars; he's allegedly so tough he sold his own liver on the black market for a new set of speakers. Kat, naturally, takes an immediate loathing to him -- but this, also naturally, only serves to intrigue the ultracool Patrick, now suddenly willing to "sacrifice himself on the altar of dignity" for her. Let the games begin.
In basic plot points, "10 Things" doesn't differ too much from the mountain of other teen tales out there now (angry girl has a breakthrough -- didn't I already see this in "She's All That"? or was it "Carrie 2"?), although the Bard's touch gives the movie a few added layers of complexity. What really elevates it, though, is the film's sharp wit and tender heart, both of which are conveyed beautifully by the fresh-faced cast. You'd think it'd be obvious, but comedies are so much more satisfying when they're actually funny -- a notion lost on an appalling number of recent high-concept capers. While some of the jokes in "10 Things" fall painfully flat -- particularly those involving the cartoonish faculty -- the movie offers genuine and consistent laughs as it treads through the adolescent milieus of frog dissection, keg parties and French lessons.
Better still, the comedy rarely bogs down into straight-out shtick. Instead, its screwball sense of humor is tempered with an affectionate appreciation of both romantic and familial love. Miller isn't much of an actor, but his obstetrician father, freaked out by the vague possibility of his daughters getting knocked up, is entertainingly overheated. When he makes Bianca hoist on a VW-sized fake belly for a few minutes, just to remind her of the consequences of misbehaving, it's both completely demented and also somehow touching. (One only wishes the movie had given a little more time to establishing what happened to the girls' mother -- it'd go a long way in rounding out the eventual explanation of Kat's rebelliousness.)
Parental angst aside, the core of the story is romance, and the movie does it justice. As various characters meet, misconstrue and eventually pair off, "10 Things" never insults the audience by asking it to believe an attraction that looks more like a line reading. One of the nicest things the film has going for it is the outright smittenness of its cast -- the camera lingers long enough on the actors' faces for everything from wanton appreciation to crestfallen dejection to register. Debut film director Gil Junger may be a TV veteran making a movie for the Clearasil crowd, but he doesn't sacrifice the story to gimmicky camerawork or overzealous pacing. He gives his characters time to fall in love, and gives the viewer the satisfaction of sitting back and watching it happen. The chemistry, especially between Ledger and Stiles, is so palpable that even when they're fighting they look like they're dying to jump each other -- exactly the kind of heat fiery lovers should generate. Even the lesser players -- Larisa Oleynik as Bianca, "Third Rock from the Sun's" Joseph-Gordon Levitt as her tutor and worthiest admirer and David Krumholtz and Susan May Pratt as a pair of dweebs united over (what else?) a love of Shakespeare -- have an easy interplay that clicks sublimely. And while they're great when they're smoldering, the young lovers are also believable as friends and siblings -- Kat and Bianca's polar opposite sisters eventually rally behind each other in ways that let them express their devotion while still allowing for the possibility of getting on each other's nerves, big time.
The attractiveness of the secondary characters is just a bonus, however; "10 Things" hinges upon the believability of its two largely unknown stars, both of whom strike just the right balance of growly and starry-eyed. And when Patrick spies Kat unaware as she dances furiously at a club, his thunderstruck look of love makes it clear we're about to deviate from the land of Shakespearean submission. He appreciates Kat -- not in spite of her being one tough spitfire, but because she's one tough spitfire. Patrick quickly surmises she's the type of girl whose idea of a good time is a pummeling round of paintball, and he's right. As the two move toward each other, Kat eventually figures out that she can open her heart while still clinging to her treasured status as a nonconformist. As her disgust of Patrick evolves into admiration, we're reminded that shrews thankfully no longer need to be tamed -- and that a woman can change her mind without losing her will.