Pretty Persuasion Review
Dirty jokes are seen by some as the lowest, easiest form of comedy but in fact the opposite is true: the filthier the humour, the trickier it is to get right. When dirty jokes work, as they do in Clerks and South Park, they can make you laugh so hard, it hurts. When they don't work, as they don't in The Sweetest Thing and Tomcats, they can make you cover your eyes and sink down into your seat in embarrassment.
Watching Pretty Persuasion, in which a 15-year-old girl recalls having anal sex and makes jokes about her stepmother fucking a dog, I cringed. Am I getting prudish in my old age? No, the script simply doesn't find humour in this material and the young actress playing the part doesn't have the comic talent to redeem it. There's nothing inherently funny about a 15-year-old girl being sodomised, it's uncomfortable listening to a child of that age talk about such things and the glaring absence of laughter just makes it even more awkward.
Pretty Persuasion wants to be a hip satire on high school, on celebrities and the media and on modern American life in general. More specifically, I think it wants to be Heathers, Michael Lehmann's brilliant 1989 high school comedy. Heathers is also frequently outrageous ("Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!", one girl exclaims) but it's smart, it's hilarious and, as a satire, it's bang on target. Pretty Persuasion is blunt, laboured and nowhere near as clever or funny as it thinks it is. Satire is supposed to have a point and there's no obvious point here unless it's that the American legal system and the media are open to manipulation. Or maybe that teenage girls can be bitches.
They don't get much bitchier than Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood), the beautiful, privileged daughter of a slobbish businessman (James Woods). Kimberly attends the most exclusive private school in Beverly Hills, where she hangs out with her best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), a fellow aspiring actress, and occasionally makes time to see her dumb football-player boyfriend Barry (Mike Erwin). She allows shy, muslim student Randa (Adi Schnall) to tag along to demonstrate her liberalism but she makes sure the newcomer knows her place.
Kimberly's ambition is to be an actress. Unfortunately, she's not faring too well in auditions so she hatches a drastic plan to put her face on the map. It involves Mr Anderson (Ron Livingston), the school drama teacher. He's already notorious for leching over the pretty, female students so no one will doubt Kimberly when she accuses him of molesting her. To make her case extra convincing, she ropes in Brittany and Randa as co-accusers (both have reasons to hate Mr Anderson) and to grease the legal and media machines, she bats her eyes at a lawyer's son (Josh Zuckerman) and at a lesbian TV reporter (Jane Krakowski).
In case you're wondering who the good guys are, there aren't any. There are no likeable characters at all in Pretty Persuasion. The movie's view of humanity is so jaundiced that it's difficult to get involved with the story. Why should we care what happens to these people when the movie itself hates them?
The film's also very smart-alecky, very sure of its own cleverness. That's all very well when the material is good like Heathers or The Rules Of Attraction, but it's alienating and annoying when it isn't. Writer Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega don't have anything clever to say about high school, about the celebrity culture or about American values. They're obvious targets for film-makers who think it's enough just to be foul-mouthed and fashionably jaded.
It's worth noting that this is the fourth American independent film I've seen in a month which portrays underage girls as either sexual predators or at least willing to sleep with adults. There's also The King, in which a man seduces his young half-sister and Hard Candy, about a vengeful 14-year-old who stalks a paedophile. I wasn't keen on either of those films but I did admire Down In The Valley, which also features Evan Rachel Wood.
In that film, she plays an unhappy teen who gets involved with a charming but disturbed older man played by Edward Norton. It's an effective melodrama and the only one of the four movies in which the jailbait character is credibly portrayed. She acts her age, you can see why she's drawn to a seemingly gentle older guy and the film provides her with realistic limits - when Norton asks her to run away with him, she panics and demurs. The other girls are screenplay creations - a docile accomplice to murder (The King), a psychopathic avenger (Hard Candy) and a clever, manipulative bitch (Pretty Persuasion).
Wood is quite superb in Down In The Valley, as she was Thirteen, but she's less impressive here - although she's convincingly evil, she has no particular gift for comedy. Not that Pretty Persuasion provides her with a comic goldmine but there are laughs to be found in it and she can't find them. James Woods can and he steals the film as effortlessly as he stole The Specialist. Pretty Persuasion is almost worth seeing for his anti-semitic rant and his phone sex scene. Ron Livingston (from the superior satire Office Space) is another bright spot. He has some funny scenes, as do Selma Blair as his wife and Danny Comden as a fellow teacher who fancies himself as a trial lawyer. There are good things in this movie, just not nearly enough to save it.