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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 6.45%
Just Average: 29.03%
Pretty Crappy: 22.58%
Sucks: 0%

3 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Pretty Persuasion
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Man, that Evan Rachel Wood has a mouth on her!"
2 stars

You know how it is when a junior-high school kid will raid the closet of their older siblings in a misguided effort to somehow look older and wiser than their years? It generally never works because while the outfit might be the same, the kid simply isn’t mature enough to pull it off and usually winds up looking even more childish than they originally did. The new teen satire “Pretty Persuasion” reminds me of kids like that–it desperately wants to be linked to its older siblings–the siblings in this case being such films as “Heathers” and “Election”–and tries to emulate them by deploying the elements that they did–black humor, social satire and a jaundiced view of high-school life designed to make the supposedly “realistic” efforts of John Hughes in the 1980's. The difference is that “Heathers” and “Election” delivered those elements with a lot of wit and intelligence while “Pretty Persuasion” tries to get away with utilizing cheap shots, broad shtick and the kind of allegedly outrageous humor that expends such an enormous effort in trying to be shocking that it never quite gets around to being funny.

Set in an around an affluent private high school in L.A., the film stars Evan Rachel Wood as Kimberly Joyce, an aspiring actress whose floats through the halls as a sort of dark-haired rejoinder to the bubble-headed blondes, including best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), that populate the campus. Before long, she has turned the entire school upside down when she, along with Brittany and Arab newcomer Randi (Adi Schnall), accuses her drama teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual harassment. The case becomes a media sensation and Kimberly becomes a media sensation, thanks in no small part to her manipulation (in more ways than one) of a local TV reporter (Jane Krakowski) who sees the telegenic girl as her key to bigger and better things. Of course, things aren’t all quite as they seem and as the fractured narrative goes along, it only gradually begins to piece things together to explain what, if anything, the teacher may have done and why Kimberly chose to denounce him.

In essence, the film is basically an updated version of “The Crucible” with high school and sexual abuse substituting for Puritan New England and witchcraft. This is not necessarily a bad idea for a film and I can see how such a thing might succeed as either a straight drama or as wicked satire. The problem with Skander Halim’s screenplay is that he doesn’t trust the strong fundamental premise enough to allow it to work on its own. Instead, he constantly peppers the proceedings with faux-outrageous jokes and ideas that are meant to inspire laughter simply because they are shocking. Kimberly’s dad (James Woods), for example, is a foul-mouthed, coke-snorting racist who loves to say the most appalling things under the guise of “just being honest.” Kimberly, for her part, doesn’t fall too far from the tree–she tells Randi an anti-Arab joke to her face as an “example” of the cruel things that her fellow classmates will say to her and later gets in trouble for referring to the father of a Jewish classmate as a “shyster,” not the best idea for someone who is playing Anne Frank in the school play. The accused teacher, for his part, may or may not have done anything to his students but we see that such thoughts are not too far from his mind–his birthday present to his wife (Selma Blair) is an outfit that “coincidentally” resembles their school uniforms and he later seems to encourage one student to do something in drama class that, if it had actually happened, would have gotten him the boot even before the accusations began.

Again, these are not necessarily bad ideas for a contemporary satire but Halim doesn’t use them as anything more than bits of shock humor designed to fool more gullible critics to thinking that simply saying something offensive, instead of actually dealing with it, is somehow transgressive all by itself. A film like “Heathers”–which was, you will recall, a comedy about teen suicide–succeeded not just because of the outrageousness of the material but because it managed to treat it seriously within the context of the humor. “Pretty Persuasion,” on the other hand, never gets around to making it to that second level. One early scene in the film pretty much says it all. It is a dinnertime “conversation” between Kimberly, her father and her hated young stepmother (Jaime King); while the stepmother tries to make polite conversation, Kimberly grills her about shocking activities that she might have engaged in with the family dog while Dad is off in his own world ranting about some ethnic or religious group that has become a pain to him. The point, of course, is to illustrate how no one is really communicating anymore–not the most original observation but one that is always worth restating–but it winds up being more about the easy laughs that Halim can score by having his characters say repugnant things. (This may be the first such rebellious teen-hated stepmother confrontation in a film that I can remember where my sympathies were completely with the hated stepmother.)

Another problem with the humor in the film is that it never adopts a consistent approach towards the jokes. Satire of this kind is not unlike a high-wire act and if it takes one false step–by playing things too broadly or by going to any lengths to score a laugh–the whole thing will come crashing down. “Pretty Persuasion” barely makes it past the opening credits before plummeting to Earth. The portrayal of the media–whether it is the hot-to-trot reporter or the sleazy MTV guys that Kimberly auditions for in the opening scene–is done in a manner that “MAD TV” might deem to be too over-the-top and schticky to be believed. In another bewildering moment, a friend of the accused teacher offers to serve as his counsel in court and offers up the kind of “wacky” courtroom defense that hasn’t been seen on a movie screen since Woody Allen cross-examined himself in “Bananas”. Instead of going about the story with a rapier wit, Halim and director Marcos Siega prefer to use a Howitzer and wind up with a lot of rubble but precious few laughs

Lost amidst that rubble are a number of good actors who struggle to play characters who are essentially unplayable. Only two are able to rise above the material and that is only because they are so gifted that they can make even the weakest screenplays shine by the sheer force of their talent alone. In a supporting turn, James Woods is hilarious as the foul-mouthed father–the role isn’t much but he throws himself into it with such shameless zeal–imagine his character from “Salvador” reconfigured as an upper-crust sleazo–that he scores laughs just by standing there. Even better than Woods is Evan Rachel Wood, the preternaturally talented young actress who is to today’s teen starlets what Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder and Reese Witherspoon were to their respective generations. Her character is supposed to appear to us as being seductive, sneaky, innocent or downright evil, depending on who is telling the story, and she is able to pull off all of those characteristics–sometimes within the same scene–with a skill that is almost frightening to behold. And yet, even she winds up overwhelmed by the increasingly nonsensical machinations of the plot–by the time of the crucial final scene, she seems as bewildered and confused by what she is supposed to be doing as we in the audience are.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11226&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/26/05 00:01:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Atlanta Film Festival For more in the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/26/08 Frances Lind Dark yet entertaining. Evan at her best. Rand was Muslim, not Hindu. 4 stars
3/15/08 ladavies Like Heathers without the wit. 3 stars
5/22/06 Jack Sommersby Brilliantly original and mammothly entertaining! A new American classic. 5 stars
1/29/06 TheOthersFan was that final scene supposed to be shocking? 3 stars
8/07/05 Jorge Boose I liked it fine. Something unusual, for a change! 5 stars
2/26/05 Robert Austin AMAZING! I was blown away!!! 5 stars
2/02/05 David Filmore Excellent 5 stars
1/29/05 Garnet Leib WOW 5 stars
1/25/05 Mike Kourey Great Movie--Like American Beauty, but better 5 stars
1/25/05 Elle Haight Fabulous! Dark, I hope it gets distribution! 5 stars
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  12-Aug-2005 (R)
  DVD: 13-Dec-2005



Directed by
  Marcos Siega

Written by
  Skander Halim

  Evan Rachel Wood
  James Woods
  Ron Livingston
  Selma Blair
  Jaime King
  Jane Krakowski

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