||A lack of real satirical bite is incongruously accompanied by a smug sense of self-importance in this shrill but toothless movie, set at a posh Beverly Hills private school but meant to be a devastating critique of the evils of the entire selfish, celebrity-crazed American society. The focal point of “Pretty Persuasion” is Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Welch), a brilliant fifteen-year old living with her bellowing, racist father (James Woods) and his third wife Emily (Jamie King), whom the girl insults at every opportunity. Kimberly’s best friend at school is blonde Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), even though she’s now with Kimberly’s former boyfriend Troy (Stark Sands). And as the story begins she impulsively takes a newcomer, Middle East immigrant Randa (Adi Schnall) on as a special project, instructing the naive girl in the realities of teen life in the school’s rarefied atmosphere.
On the surface Kimberly at first appears to be a superficial, somewhat misguided but capable young woman in the “Clueless” mode; but it soon becomes clear that she’s a shrewd, cooly manipulative and spiteful person with an agenda of her own--most notably becoming an actress (she’s first seen auditioning, without success, for a role on a trashy soap opera). Her spitefulness is demonstrated in full measure, though, when, during a visit to the school by an ambitious TV reporter (Jane Krakowski), she persuades Brittany and Randa to join her in accusing hated English teacher Percy Anderson (Rob Livingston) of sexual impropriety. But when a trial on the charges occurs, she uses sexual favors behind the scenes to secure a high-powered lawyer as a replacement for Anderson’s inept attorney, his teaching colleague Roger Nicholl (Danny Comden). Why she would sabotage her own case in this fashion is revealed at the close, in a denouement that shows her to be far more despicable than one would have thought--though her motives, when uncovered, prove sadly conventional.
In telling this tale of school-age perfidy as awful as anything in “Cruel Intentions,” director Marcos Siega employs a highly stylized approach, aiming for a pervasive mood of soulless sterility and encouraging his actors to italicize their performances, in ways ranging from Welch’s hard-bitten control and Schnall’s odd passivity to Woods’ grotesque flamboyance. Under the circumstances nobody fares very well, because Skandor Halim’s script is so thoroughly unpleasant. None of the characters are at all sympathetic--they’re universally self-centered and obnoxious (Anderson, for example, mightn’t be guilty of physical abuse of the girls, but he is constantly ogling them)--and such graceless notes as Woods’ anti-Semitic rants, Krakowski’s lesbian relationship with her Amazonian camerawoman, and Kimberly’s extensive sexual escapades are obviously intended to serve as searing indictments of American culture but are more effective as monuments to the filmmakers’ blindness about what constitutes effective satire. The dispiriting feel of it all might have been at least alleviated by some really sharp dialogue from time to time, but all the writing offers is the crassest, most obvious stuff--like Woods’ periodic rants--whose poverty of invention the affected acting and direction only accentuate. Watching this movie is exhausting work: the archness is so oppressive that after awhile one longs for a bit of drab naturalism to break the garishness and the sulphurous smell.
Over the years it becomes ever clearer what an amazing stroke of good fortune “Heathers” was--a dark high school satire that was actually funny. It’s difficult to think of a similar picture in the intervening decade and a half that has been anything other than awful. This one is no exception.