Friday, December 09, 2005

Pretty Persuasion

A grand example of what happens when filmmakers become overly delighted with their own ideas, Sundance hit comedy Pretty Persuasion tries desperately for the sort of incisive, cynical social satire evident in indie favorites like Election or the work of Todd Solondz (particularly Happiness). The film means well, I suppose, with it's frank presentation of teenage sexuality and dark sense of humor. Screenwriter Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega simply don't go far enough in their grim vision of lonely rich kids fighting back against the deceitful, perverse adult world around them. They pick the biggest, easiest targets available - from disingenuous TV anchors to nerdy, sexually frustrated teenagers to pious, restrained Muslim women - and then score a series of cheap shots against them.

The big shock moments - a teenage girl's description of losing her anal virginity, James Woods' delivering a blisteringly anti-Semetic monologue - don't register like they would in the days before "South Park" and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Halim's dialogue constantly calls attention to itself - each character seems to take delight in their own rapier wit - and many of the performances are, accordingly, far too broad. But the biggest problem here is that Pretty Persuasion just isn't funny. Even when Halim manages to set up an amusing scenario - like the protagonist getting caught yelling a virulently anti-Semetic comment in front of the entrie student body - Siega fumbles the execution, causing the scene to fall flat.

Here's, to my mind, the reason a movie like Happiness - equally as snide, cynical, frank and unwholesome - is really funny, while Pretty Persuasion lands with such a defiant thud. Writer/director Todd Solondz takes his characters and their motivations very seriously. Take Dylan Baker's pedophilic suburban dad...It's not some oversized caricature, a sweaty, horny greaseball whose predilection for 10 year old boys occupies his every waking thought. Baker inhabits the character with disarming realism - he's haunted by his addiction, it's a source of constant torment. This makes him, if not completely sympathetic to an audience, at least an object of pity and digust rather than merely disgust.

So, when he's involved in comic situations, it's more funny, because in an odd way, it's more relatable. We have been allowed inside his perspective, no matter how repellant we may personally find his actions.

Pretty Persuasion never bothers to allow us inside the character's heads, because they're not fully realized personalities in the first place. Most of them are written as very stupid, so that Halim and Siega can score cheap jokes off of them. Schoolgirl Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachael Wood) is nominally the protagonist of the story, but we're rarely granted any sort of insight into her behavior or motives. We know she dreams of stardom and that she is duplicitous and two-faced, but beyond that...she remains an enigma.

But not a particularly fascinating or original one. She reminds me a lot of Reese Witherspoon's young go-getter in Election, from her eloquent diction and extensive vocabulary to her dalliances with bookish school teachers. Kimberly is determined to become an actress, mainly as a pathway to fame and recognition. When it becomes obvious this won't happen merely by going on cattle-call style auditions, she comes up with a backup plan - accuse a teacher at her exclusive Beverly Hills private school (Ron Livingston, miscast as a slimeball) of sexual misconduct. He may or may not be guilty...we see contradictory or confusing flashbacks concerning his odd relationships with female students.

The entire second half of the film is taken up with a tedious courtroom proceeding, narrated by perky lesbian reporter Emily Klein (Jane Krakowski, way over the top). This segment features a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards, surprises and twists, but none of it feels genuinely surprising. Even though the story doubles-back on itself, the tone remains dispiritingly constant. A major problem is the lack of dynamic or funny characters.

The other two girls Kimberly recruits for her plan are both extraordinarily obvious, thin caricatures. There's the dim bulb blonde (Elisabeth Harnois) who's there merely to accept the brunt of Kimberly's abuse and deliver Phoebe-on-"Friends" style ditzy punchlines. Then there's the new transfer student, a strict Arab Muslim named Randa (Adi Schnall). And here's where the movie moves from being a provocative dark comedy into being an offensive comedy. Randa is not just strict in her religion - she's a completely naive idiot. The notion that in 2005, an American comedy would traffic in such an ignorant stereotype - an Arab woman who constantly asks child-like sexual questions, or who readily accepts bulemia as a reasonable dietary system without question, or who fails to recognize a disgracefully racist anti-Arab joke as offensive is not a funny character. It's a racist joke.

The racism is probably what garnered Pretty Persuasion most of its intial buzz and attention. The racism comes on early and often...As Kimberly's father, James Woods' character launches into repeated, paranoid racist diatribes, mainly aimed at the Jews. (In a sample joke, a cell phone rings at the family dinner table, and all three Joyce family members answer their phones in sync. When it turns out to be Kimberly who received the call, Woods slams down the phone and says, "See? The Jews! That's what they do! Call you and then hang up!" Ha ha! What a hilariously charming Jew-hater!")

Then there's the constant anti-Arab sentiment (characters constantly mock Randa's headress, accent, skin color, smell and a truly vile racist joke is repeated several times). But many random little bits of other racism and intolerance are peppered throughout the film - in one scene, a rabidly angry Jewish man berates Randa about the semi-existance of a "State of Palestine," in a scene with no connection to any other scene in the film.

Obviously, Halim and Siega did not intend to make a racist film. Clearly, they want to poke fun at racism, to show how people can see themselves as tolerant, open-minded people while still operating off of a deviant, racist personal agenda. But the joke doesn't come off, because the film is too simplistic, too desperate for a nervous laugh and not ambitious enough to really make any sort of insightful point about American society. Everything is thin, thin, thin. Why is Kimberly so cold and distant? Because her parents don't pay attention to her. Waaaaaaahhhhh.....

One final scene I'll mention...In what could have been a direct homage to Todd Solondz, one scene finds Livingston's scummy teacher and his young wife (Selma Blair) at home. He has purchased her a gift for her birthday - a grey skirt just like ones worn by his schoolgirl students, which he then asks her to model seductively. That right there would be enough to sell the moment - in fact, it's probably a bit more direct and obvious than a scene in a Solondz movie, but you get the idea...

Unfortuantely, Siega can't resist the temptation to keep going. He has Blair read a student's paper about why they need to be disciplined. He has her skamper around and strip out of the skirt. He lingers on the moment, presumably for a laugh, but it just doesn't ever come. It's like the entire film Pretty Persuasion - a rather generic idea in search of a movie.


rayslucky13 said...

REALLY well written review Lons. You're right on the mark in describing the problems of the piece. I was really disappointed to read that this movie garnered critical notice.It's just not funny. I don't even think it's controversial, just boring. Where the hell have the good movies gone?!!! said...

Of course, the writer is completely fair.