Reviewed by James Slone
Kimberly Joyce comes from a long tradition of rich bitch anti-heros populating American satire, particularly those high school aged social comedies like “Cruel Intentions,” “Election,” or more analogously, “Heathers.” Played with reptilian relish by Evan Rachel Wood, she connives her way through a soap opera plot of debauchery and manipulation that is entirely unlike high school as it actually exists, even in the wealthy private schools of southern California where the film takes place. It goes without saying that Kimberly is a cold, deceptive popular kid with a handful of weaker students she uses for her own ends. We’ve all been here before.
Kimberly lives in a mansion with her paranoid businessman father (James Woods) and his flighty girlfriend. Her father is an angry white man who rants about Jews and blacks with an almost poetic slew of profanity. During dinner, Kimberly insults his girlfriend by suggesting she’s been overly intimate with the family dog, and the girlfriend responds with the kind of pop psychology that tells us that we’re watching a “satire on the customs and mores of American life.” There’s a distant mother who calls and we’re invited to sympathize with Kimberly, but the film leaves their relationship too underdeveloped to mean anything. She also lost a brother in the war in Iraq, but not much is made of it.
At school, Kimberly is a popular girl who uses her looks and intelligence to get what she wants from boys, teachers, and other students. In one scene she fools a boy into providing oral sex first so she can renege on returning the favor. The scene is shot humorously but then it’s repeated four of five times and quickly becomes old. Her best friends are Kathy (Jaime King), a slightly dense but fairly nice blond girl who tends to confuse words, and Randa (Adi Schnall), a sheltered Muslim girl who serves as the film’s ironic moral cipher. Kimberly splits her time coddling them into submission and putting them down.
All three girls are students of Percy Anderson (Ron Livingston), a literature and drama teacher. He has something of a reputation of being a pedophile, though his worst offense is having his girlfriend Grace (Selma Blaire) wear a private school skirt while reading a student paper written in detention. When the film opens he’s casting for a school play based on the life of Anne Frank. Kimberly gets the titular role Kathy wanted (she is a brunette after all) and Kathy feels dejected. She does however have the consolation of Kimberly’s ex boyfriend and a subdued hostility lies beneath every conversation they have. Randa sits on the lowest rung of their social latter, the target of their cruel jokes and condescension.
Soon, Percy invites their hostility and becomes the target of sexual assault charges, and the movie devolves into a series of comic courtroom scenes, settling into a lazy Rashomon situation as different witnesses give different accounts of the same crimes etc. But it turns out that all of this is really a complicated ploy by Kimberly to become famous and launch an acting career, because that’s the convention of the average satire nowadays: everything is a cynical grab for fame. There are a number of supporting characters that show up and do their comic scenes, a lesbian television reporter (Jane Krakowski) for example, but they exist primarily to drive the plot.
“Pretty Persuasion” is basically a caustic sitcom stretched far beyond its natural running time. When all is said an done it’s just a series of send-ups and hostile jokes without the canned laughs. I have to admit, and it shames me to say this, that I found much of it hilarious in a ribald sort of way. I have a taste for misanthropic humor and the film delivers on that basic level. There are many who will be offended, since so many of these jokes are predicated on ethnic stereotypes, especially about Jews and Arabs, but since the jokes come from the mouths of unsympathetic racists they’re to be expected.
The jokes at Randa’s expense are particularly cruel, but this was clearly the aim of the film makers. Her corruption by her friends in the film is intended to shock us. She’s introduced to porn, alcohol and fattening foods, exposed to a number of disgusting rituals and humiliated. Clearly the idea here is that Americans are callous and immoral. Which is all fine and well, except that this reactionary viewpoint is founded on what amounts to a false representation of bourgeois life in the States. Much of the culture in this country is rotten, but I don’t believe for a second that many fifteen year olds, even the spoiled ones, are this cruel, manipulative, or sensational.
As a satire “Pretty Persuasion” fails because it lacks genuine human insight and isn’t really about human beings at all. The characters are just types to be made fun of. We recognize a certain exaggerated humanity in some of the key performances, especially James Woods’ brutally honest portrayal of a smug suburban bigot, but this a largely a story of caricatures. There is a long cultural tradition of satirizing the wealthy in this country and the results have often been funny and incisive, but the OC level of behavior exhibited by these rich brats goes far beyond realism. And I think we’ve had enough satires about the cultural bankruptcy of the rich. We should move beyond it into more substantial criticism.