10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Directed by Gil Junger
Cast: Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Larisa Oleynik, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larry Miller, Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Susan May Pratt, Gabrielle Union, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, Allison Janney.
1999 98 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sex-related material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 3, 1999.
In December of 1996, a little movie called "Scream," was released, became a box-office smash, and resurrected films targeted at teens. First, it was teen slasher movies that were the big fad (both "Scream" movies, "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Urban Legend," etc.), but just recently, the popularity has switched over to the teen comedy genre (a 'la '80s John Hughes), starting with last June's "Can't Hardly Wait." It may be the first week of April in 1999, but so far this year we have been given a movie aimed at the 25-and-under market almost every single week: "Varsity Blues," "Jawbreaker," "Cruel Intentions," "Simply Irresistible," "The Rage: Carrie 2," and "The Mod Squad." Coming April 9 are two more of this type: "Never Been Kissed" and "Go," and on April 23, we've got the teen satire "Election" and the teen horror-comedy "Idle Hands." Jeesh! Out of all of these moves, however, the one that is most similar to the latest incarnation, "10 Things I Hate About You," is this past January's mediocre, ho-hum "She's All That." Although similar in plotting (ok, darn near identical), "10 Things I Hate About You," a modern-day version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" ("She's All That" got its inspiration from "Pygmalion"), is an infinitely superior film in every department, from the smart direction by first-time feature director Gil Junger to the charming and well-written screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith to the striking ensemble cast, who give the best group of performances in a teen comedy since 1985's "The Breakfast Club." And to top it all off, in the inevitable climax set at the prom, at least we didn't have to once again suffer through a goofy, inappropriate dance sequence (who could forget, or want to remember, for that matter, this ludicrous development in "She's All That?").
The day wide-eyed, shy new student Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) starts school at Seattle-based Padua High, he is swept away at the sight of the beautiful and popular sophomore, Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik). Although he doesn't know french, he purposefully learns some of it just so he can tutor her, but finds that her paranoid gynecologist father (Larry Miller) won't allow her to date until her bitter, unconventional older sister, Kat (Julia Stiles), a senior, decides to. Kat, of course, has sworn off the likes of boys, but Cameron sets out to find someone that will be the perfect match for her, which is exactly what he finds in the form of the rebellious Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). Complicating matters, Cameron's dorky friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), decides to use a wealthy jock, Joey (Andrew Keegan), who also has his sights set on Bianca, as a pawn so that he will pay Patrick to get Kat to go out with him, and then Cameron hopes to steal Bianca away from Joey.
As you can see, "10 Things I Hate About You" includes a huge number of characters, some of which I haven't even mentioned, such as Kat's Shakespeare-obsessed friend, Mandella (Susan May Pratt) and Bianca's materialistic comrade, Chastity (Gabrielle Union). At a short, but well-used running time of 98 minutes, all of the characters are perfectly handled, satisfyingly developed, and, for the most part, are not treated as caricatures (another flaw of "She's All That," where the bad guys (and gals) ran around constantly saying, "you're vapor"). Since I could sympathize with the realistic depictions of the central characters, and since many of the comedic and dramatic scenes were surprisingly effective, I got completely caught up in all of the relationships and was thoroughly entertained.
Aside from a good screenplay, it's the performances that can make or break a movie, and director Junger has really hit the jackpot. Aside from Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock from the Sun"), who gives his strongest performance to date here, none of the actors are that well-known, but it is this aspect that brings a particular freshness to the proceedings. As the main character of Kat, Julia Stiles (last seen in the miniseries "The '60s") is marvelous and always believable, and certainly has a bright future ahead of her. Even though it is her role that is initially the most difficult and hard-edged, it was easy to identify with Kat's way of thinking (she is against the silly tradition of the prom and loves reading Sylvia Plath), and I completely admired her individuality. No one, I think, could have portrayed her as perfectly as Stiles does. Heath Ledger, as the infamous bad-boy of the town, injects much life into Patrick, and has a lot of chemistry with Stiles. One other actor of note is Larisa Oleynik who, with the help of screenwriters Lutz and Smith, is able to turn Bianca into a person with multi-dimensions, even though she is accurately self-centered at the on-set. In one truthful scene, Cameron angrily asks her if she has always been so selfish, and Bianca grudgingly realizes that yes, she has.
One off-beat element of the film, and a source of some hearty laughs, is the way that the school's staff act, which is strikingly unformal. Allison Janney, as the guidance counselor Ms. Perky, who is writing a trashy Harlequin romance novel, is comic dynamite, as is Daryl "Chill" Mitchell as the english teacher, who reads Shakespeare to the class in rap and, at one point, sends Kat to the office because, for once, she actually thinks one of his assignments is really good. Although there are a few cheap laughs that are thrown into the film near the beginning, most of it actually works, especially in the humorous and witty dialogue exchanges and quirks between the characters. In one very funny scene, Chastity asks, "I know people can be overwhelmed, and they can be underwhelmed, but can people just be...whelmed?" At another point, Bianca and Kat's father (a stand-out Larry Miller), who is constantly terrified that his daughters are going to get pregnant, only allows Bianca to go to the prom on one occasion: before she leaves, she has to put on the heavy fat suit he has so she will get an idea of what it's like to be pregnant.
"10 Things I Hate About You" once and for all proves that there is still life in the teen comedy genre, and this movie is probably more reminiscent of the great John Hughes than any other film of the '90s. It also helps that the movie has a perfectly-assembled soundtrack, mixing indie-rock with new wave '80s songs (and with, thank goodness, no rap). By the film's end, it actually had me rooting for certain characters to get together, and I was also quite pleased with how everything was wrapped up, especially in the final scenes involving Kat and Bianca, Kat and her father, and a flawlessly-acted and moving sequence in which Kat gets up to read the poem she has written for her english class (this is where the title comes from). Luckily, I doubt I would be able to find ten things I hate about "10 Things I Hate About You," but the positive aspects of the film far out-number ten.
©1999 by Dustin Putman