Based on the same 18th-century French novel that inspired Dangerous Liaisons a decade ago, Cruel Intentions is a movie about money, power, sex, manipulation, and revenge. Would it be reasonable to suppose that such forces aren't unfamiliar to the Hollywood players who made the Cruel deal go down? "I've always said that if Sebastian Valmont were alive today," observes writer-director Roger Kumble of his movie's ruthless lady-killer, "he'd probably be working at the William Morris Agency." Indeed, and if such a pickup artist added adolescent lust to his wish list of liaisons dangereuses, we'd have--voila!--the latest entry in the modestly budgeted, megagrossing genre sweepstakes known as late-'90s teensploitation. (For more info on the sources of said cycle, see the bodacious box-office receipts for Varsity Blues and She's All That, if not the films themselves.)
In place of Liaisons' distinguished cast, Cruel Intentions flaunts the fresh flesh of Ryan Phillipe, Reese Witherspoon, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who has particular appeal to the movie's target audience of WB fans aged 7 to 35. "When modernizing this story," explains a pink-lipsticked Gellar to a table of scribes at the posh Four Seasons, "the only thing they could do was make [the cast] younger." Perhaps, and yet this tale of two scheming prep-school stepsiblings who conspire to deflower the headmaster's daughter hardly lacks for inventive updating: Gellar's bitchy co-conniver toots coke from a crucifix necklace; her partner in crime (the hunky Phillipe) tools around the Upper East Side in a vintage Jaguar; and the duped golden girl (the classy Witherspoon) owes her virtuous reputation to having authored an ode to chastity in Seventeen. Lines like "Blow me" and "Fuck her yet?" probably didn't occur to author Choderlos de Laclos two centuries ago, nor the notion that Valmont's completed conquest might earn such a generous promise of compensation from the ice-queen wagering against it. "You can put it anywhere," purrs Gellar's smutty heiress, placing the orifice of the young stud's choice up against his Jag.
Kumble's eloquence aside, the main credit for soiling de Laclos while luring horny ticket buyers belongs to producer Neal H. Moritz, a UCLA grad with an econ degree, credited in the Cruel press kit with "spearheading the comeback of youth films." Having hit big with the teen slasher-pic I Know What You Did Last Summer the autumn before last, and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer last fall, Moritz--who has tactically chosen to work with no fewer than seven first-time directors--is the sort of producer-auteur who gets a gleam in his eye when describing a low budget. "We made Cruel Intentions for under $11 million," says he, all aglow. "I basically pulled every string in the book: I got one of the top cinematographers in the business [Theo Van de Sande] for half his fee, and we were able to attract the top young actors for less than their full fees. This was one of those projects that everyone wanted to be involved in. It was fresh--even though, obviously, it's a remake."
So let's cut to the chase: Why so many teen flicks of late? Moritz's answer is swift and authoritative. "It's because the prime destinations for kids on Friday and Saturday nights are the malls and the movie theaters, and I think what they really want to see are movies about themselves. We make a very conscious effort not to put adults in our movies, because kids do not want to see their parents when they go out. Basically, kids want to be where other kids are, okay? And what you realize is that it's young females who are driving what's happening on weekend nights--because where the young females go, the young males will follow. And so if you're able to make movies that are attracting young females, that's a really smart place to be." Small wonder Moritz sees Cruel Intentions not as a black comedy but as "a tragedy" and "a love story," having learned the titanic value of a teen weepie in which the male protagonist dies in a terrible accident, leaving the heroine's heart to go on.
The teen-movie renaissance is a relatively recent phenomenon, although this producer's tactic of demographic targeting through sensational material certainly predates Scream. Moritz's first film project was the 1992 boys-in-the-hood shocker Juice--made, he says proudly, "back when Tupac Shakur was just a roadie in a band." Strategically released to theaters in African-American neighborhoods, Juice grossed $30 million on a $3.3 million investment. "There were very few black movies being made then," Moritz says. "I think you can't get hurt as bad making genre movies aimed at specific groups." This shrewd philosophy has its roots in the school of cinematic exploitation taught by ''60s schlock-art guru Roger Corman--whose American International Pictures, as it happens, took its start-up costs from Moritz's theater-owning grandpa and was co-managed by his dad for two decades. "My father was head of marketing and distribution at AIP," Moritz says. "They used to make the posters before they made the movies."
Speaking of which, the Cruel Intentions poster fits the film like CK briefs on the next Marky Mark. Explicitly saluting sex over substance, the ad offers the leads' wet, pouty lips at a size exceeding any words except the title, and comes capped by this brilliantly reflexive tag-line: "In the game of seduction there is only one rule, never fall in love." Indeed, as the art of the deal (otherwise known as "seduction") takes clear precedence over the art (a.k.a. "love"), even critics are turned into box-office analysts. Momentarily forgetting the terms of the stepsiblings' wager in the film itself, one writer among us employs industry lingo to inquire about profit participation. "Does Sarah get back-end?" he wonders aloud--apparently not recalling that, in this particular game of seduction, the winner gets to put it anywhere.
Cruel Intentions starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.