Writer-director Roger Kumble’s foxy, snotty, enjoyably trashy update of 1988’s ”Dangerous Liaisons” isn’t the second or even the third movie to adapt Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel about sexual manipulation among spoiled aristocrats — Roger Vadim’s ”Dangerous Liaisons” (1959) and Milos Forman’s ”Valmont” (1989) came before. But ”Cruel Intentions” is the first to move the story from gilded 18th-century Paris to moneyed contemporary Manhattan and set the players in high school. It’s the first time we’ve ever heard Valmont report on his erotic adventures like this: ”If you’re asking if I nailed her, the answer is no.”
And it’s certainly the first time the heartless Marquise de Merteuil — a fangs-baring role previously occupied by Glenn Close and now rented by ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn Merteuil — describes her position in society comme ça: ”I’m the Marcia f—ing Brady of the Upper East Side.”
”Cruel Intentions” is calculatedly, wantonly naughty; no passing character is too negligible to ridicule, from Swoosie Kurtz as Sebastian’s media-star psychiatrist (an in-joke: Kurtz costarred in Frears’ ”Liaisons”) to Christine Baranski as the snobby mother of a dim-bulb virgin (Selma Blair) about to fall into Sebastian’s clutches. (The virgin is given a particular boot in the rear: She’s made to galumph around in an Australia souvenir T-shirt that is, like, so lame.)
Yet for all the sewer talk, for all the times Kathryn anesthetizes her ennui with toots of cocaine from a silver crucifix, ”Cruel Intentions” never shocks or even offends by ascribing fully adult cruelties and erotic activities to obnoxious kids; such harshness wouldn’t flatter a cast this moussed and magazine-layout-ready. Showing less skin than an average Lever 2000 soap commercial and making less orgasmic noise than promos for Clairol shampoos, these teenthrobs are merely playing at being studs and vamps.
They’re fawns, they’re puppies, they’re tadpoles with potty mouths. She may run her hands over her corseted breasts and strike a smoldering pose (assisted by a hair-color change from Buffy blond to bitch-brunet), but Gellar looks about as come-hitherish as Monica Lewinsky in that sad, sad beret, waiting to hug the Big Creep. Witherspoon plays a good girl who gives her heart and then her bod to the wrong man, but she does so like a 4-H club member at a livestock fair. And Phillippe? Well, he’s livestock if ever I’ve seen some, an androgynously pretty young man with a ripe lower lip. That his Sebastian can bag young women is remarkable, considering how he can barely be bothered to smile or stand up.
There’s a satisfying payoff in ”Cruel Intentions,” courtesy of the original novelist. It’s not as electrifying a theatrical moment as when Glenn Close wipes lipstick off her powder-white face while one tear falls, but it’ll do. A bitch gets her comeuppance and a bastard repents in tragedy. What sneakier way to teach teens a lesson than to let them think the adults are shocked — shocked — by their experimentally wicked ways?