COVER

COOL INTENTIONS

Brian D. Johnson March 22 1999
COVER

COOL INTENTIONS

Brian D. Johnson March 22 1999

COOL INTENTIONS

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Meet Ryan Phillippe, teen idol. At the age of 24, he is no teenager, but he plays one in the movies. This blond Adonis with the pretty-boy pout was the bully who got fish-gutted in the slasher hit I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)—costarring with Sarah Michelle Gellar of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was the disco kid who danced shirtless in last year’s box-office bomb 54. And now, co-starring with Gellar in Cruel Intentions, he plays a young lothario who conspires to seduce a prepschool virgin. Refitting the 18th-century sex intrigue of Dangerous Liaisons for uppercrust adolescents in Manhattan, Cruel Intentions is the raciest of a new breed of movies that are juicing up the teen-flick formula. In Hollywood these days, teenage hormones are all the rage.

Check out what passes for cool in Cruel Intentions. Sebastian (Phillippe) makes a wager with his stepsister,

Kathryn (Gellar), who dares him to deflower a Seventeen magazine cover girl who advocates premarital chastity. If he fails, he must forfeit his prized 1956 Jaguar. If he succeeds, his stepsister promises to go to bed with him, sweetening the deal with an offer he can’t refuse: ‘You can put it anywhere you like.” Yikes. We have come a long way from Beach Blanket Bingo.

But then, these teen idols are no ingenues. The virgin teen is played by Reese Witherspoon, a 23-year-old who began her career at 14. She is now engaged to Phillippe and pregnant with his child. And as the stepsister—who snorts cocaine from a silver crucifix—Gellar seems gleefully intent on driving a stake through her righteous TV image as Buffy. As for Phillippe, he considers high school the ideal setting for a tale of sexual cruelty. “It’s the last bastion for people being so concerned with reputation,” he told Maclean’s. “Kids in high school are so vindictive and spiteful.” But then he adds: “I hope this movie isn’t taken all that seriously. For lack of a better word, it’s cool. I dig the clothes, I dig the car, the dialogue is kinda fresh. These kids are super-affluent and well-educated and bored and unsupervised—they seem like comic book characters.”

Or young movie stars.

It has been said Hollywood is “high school with money.”

The phrase, one presumes, was meant as metaphor, in the sense that Hollywood is a professional prom, a Darwinian pageant ruled by cliquish glamour and opportunistic sex.

These days, however, Hollywood literally looks like high school with money. In one movie after another, teenage girls are plotting romance, class nerds are plotting revenge, hunks are learning humility, and wicked prom queens are biting the dust. She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, Rushmore, Jawbreaker, Varsity Blues, October Sky, Carrie 2, Wing Commander—those are the teen-themed movies from just the past two months. In coming weeks, look for Go, Never Been Kissed, American Pie and Idle Hands.

Teen flicks are inexpensive, and there seems to be an insatiable demand for them. Almost every week a new release takes direct aim at the youth market, often recouping its budget overnight and winning the box-office derby on its opening weekend. Cruel Intentions, which

cost $17 million, made $20.5 million in its opening weekend. She’s All That and Varsity Blues, which each cost about $15 million, opened with box-office grosses of $26 million apiece.

Studio executives cannot help gloating. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal said: “What’s great about making these kinds of movies—and we make a lot of them—is that they have a very focused audience. Look at all the money we made on Spice World. You know how much that made around the world? And it cost nothing.” Spice World grossed $119

Today s teen flicks have come a long way from ’60s fare like Beach Blanket Bingo

million globally, nine times its budget.

“That’s good business.”

Tom Rothman, president of film production at 20th Century Fox concurs.

“Hollywood always follows where the business dollars go,” he says. “The children of the baby boomers are a huge bump in the demographic charts, they’re becoming teenagers and they love to go to the movies.” Adds Rothman: “They’re a clear target audience, and they’re intensely discriminating.

They know the real from the ersatz, and they are aggressive, effective consumers. So you have to come up with a good product.”

To give it a face, an instant generation of movie stars has emerged.

Many have migrated from television—including Buffy's Gellar, Dawson’s Creek regulars James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes, Party of Five partners Jennifer Love Hewitt and Neve Campbell, Sabrina’s Melissa Joan Hart, Claire Danes of My So-Called Life, and Road to Avonlea's Sarah Polley. But others—notably Freddie Prinze Jr.,

Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard and Phillippe—have fast-tracked to fame in slasher hits, either Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Scream (1996), along with Clueless (1995), set the tone for the current wave of teen movies, in which girl power rules.

Just as female pop singers are leaving their male colleagues in the dust, legions of empowered young heroines are kicking down the door of Hollywood’s boys club. Scream presented Canadian Neve Campbell as the stalker victim who takes back the night. In Go, her compatriot Sarah Polley plays an 18-year-old checkout clerk who brokers a drug deal. Never Been Kissed stretches Drew Barrymore’s teen appeal by casting her as a reporter who goes undercover in her old high school. And in She’s All That, Rachael Leigh Cook is a mousy artist who gets a make-over and challenges the bitch goddess for the title of prom queen—this high school is a junior Hollywood, where all a girl needs to succeed is hair, makeup, wardrobe and disposable contacts.

Girls are also driving the teen audience. “The thinking in the business is that they are a prime market,” says Phillippe. “The studios’ way of thinking is that the young girls bring the young guys, and the young girls see the movies over and over.” After all, it was repeat business by teenage girls infatuated with Leonardo DiCaprio that pushed Titanic over the top.

The few teen movies geared to guys seem dazed and confused. Varsity Blues, the earnest story of a Texas high-school quarterback who becomes a local hero, takes time out for a lingering sequence at a strip club. American Pie, meanwhile, out-porks Porky’s with a scene

of a teenage boy getting intimate with a warm apple pie. In most teen flicks, however, the guys seem to serve as decorative hunks. Freddie Prinze Jr. may get top billing in She’s All That, but the female characters call the shots. And Phillippe is the body, not the brains, behind Cruel Intentions—he also has the movie’s only nude scene, stripping down to shock the unsuspecting virgin.

The film’s novice writer-director Roger Kumble, 32, says he had planned Cruel Intentions as a low-budget lark. “I thought I was going to get a million dollars and make something that would play at the art houses,” he recalls. “Because I cast the two leads of I Know What You Did Last Summer and one of them is Buffy, we got pegged in with the teen films. I always thought it would play more to college kids.”

But Kumble happily admits that studio president Pascal persuaded him to tone down some of the raunchier scenes and pump up the finale. Despite its shock value, and its luscious art direction, Cruel Intentions surrenders to teen formula. Unlike John Malkovich, his counterpart in Dangerous Liaisons, Phillippe’s Valmont softens from cad to wimp. And Witherspoon plays a spitfire of neo-con virtue. Only Gellar is allowed the luxury of undiluted venom— but she is just another prom queen from hell cruising for a royal humiliation.

In fact, for all the naughty talk and edgy sound tracks, most teen movies offer up archetypes that seem closer to the ’50s than to the ’90s. There is nothing as playfully subversive as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), or as seriously sexy as Risky Business (1983), the movie that launched Tom Cruise. The one bright flash of originality so far is Rushmore, a wonderfully off-kilter comedy about a boy genius at a prep school. But although it is about teenagers, it is not made for them. Of course, every young actor wants to grow gracefully out of the teen movie ghetto. It is not easy. Gellar recently played a chef in a semi-grown-up romantic fable called Simply Irresistible, and it sank like an ill-timed soufflé. As for Phillippe, he realizes he is getting too old to play adolescents—even if he and Witherspoon seem young to be starting a family.

And did these two co-stars of Cruel Intentions get pregnant intentionally? “She thinks that’s a personal question,” says Phillippe, noting that his fiancée is asleep just 10 feet away. “But I don’t really mind. It happened. We found out. It just seemed like a blessing. We’d been together two years. You know, this business does mature you pretty quickly. It made sense to us. I can handle it. We have the energy, we have the patience, we have the money. It just felt like something I shouldn’t question, and she shouldn’t question. We thought about it for a while and then it was ... apparent.” Spoken like a true adult. □