WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: Mischievous pupil Sebastian Valmont travels to New York to live with his father and stepmother, and his new stepsister Kathryn Merteuil, the high-flying student president at Manchester prep school. Sebastian begins a tentative relationship with chaste headmaster’s daughter Danielle, while Kathryn makes it her mission to ruin the relationship in any way she can. She also finds time to make a project of deflowering silly, innocent schoolmate Cherie.
If you’ve seen the first Cruel Intentions, or have read Les Liaisons Dangereuses on which it is based, you’ll know that there’s a very good reason why there are no further adventures of Kathryn and Sebastian. In order to continue his series, writer/director Roger Kumble takes us back to a time when his characters were young and a little more callow, though no less callous.
Escaping from a dreadful reputation and his mother’s drug problems, Sebastian (a bushy-browed Robin Dunne) arrives in New York and is bowled over by the opulence of his new surroundings, funded by foxy stepmother Tiffany (Mimi Rogers). He’s astounded that his philandering father (David McIlwraith) has managed to land on his feet, and he’s belittled by his new stepsister Kathryn (Amy Adams), but intellectually he proves to be her match. They both attend Manchester Prep school, where Kathryn is student body president and also runs a secret Tribunal, which judges peers and decides who does, or doesn‘t, make the grade.
Kathryn decides to take insanely wealthy and innocently idiotic Cherie (Keri Lynn Pratt) down a peg or two by introducing her to sinful pleasures, while Sebastian romances reluctant headmaster’s daughter Danielle (Sarah Thompson). Kathryn takes against the match and puts obstacles in her brother’s way – including herself – to try to get Sebastian to show his true colours. Sebastian is determined to stay on the straight and narrow to win Danielle’s love, but is she the innocent lamb she makes out to be?
If you have seen the first Cruel Intentions, you’ll find much of Manchester Prep very familiar, from the first scene (Sebastian casually ruining someone’s life) to the quarry (for Cecile read Cherie) to the look of the piece (Danielle and Annette share the same taste in sky-blue tops). Unfortunately, not only is this rehashing deeply unoriginal, it’s also done with undercooked, if not raw, acting talent. Adams (now very bankable, of course) is more convincing acting weak and petulant than seductive or manipulative here, whilst Dunne exhibits little of Valmont’s lady-killing charm or cool (indeed, when Kathryn gratuitously throws two naked sisters in his way, he doesn’t know where to put himself). No doubt those involved would say it’s all deliberate, showing that the younger Valmont and Merteuil weren’t quite the finished article; but neither impersonation made me think the youngsters were remotely likely to turn into Ryan Philippe or Sarah Michelle Gellar.
I didn’t much enjoy the introduction of everything that was left out of the original, either. For example, there’s school life, which as you’d expect takes the film into well-worn, cliquey Heathers/Mean Girls territory; worse, by including Sebastian’s father and Kathryn’s mother, Kumble makes the enfants terribles little more than chips off the old block, which answers questions you didn’t ask and psychologically isn’t very satisfying. Indeed, the original worked precisely because the parents’ absence (and implied neglect) allowed Sebastian and Kathryn to conduct their warped relationship. The international house staff, meanwhile, act as little more than comic relief, and a bone of contention between the bickering step-siblings.
Then there’s the question of why the plot (Kathryn and Sebastian’s rivalry, and Sebastian’s wooing of Danielle) is so divorced from the subplot (Kathryn’s corruption of Cherie); it’s as if the two weren’t intended to be part of the same movie. The answer lies in the film’s genesis: Cruel Intentions was made as a TV series, but after making the pilot and another episode, Fox became squeamish and cancelled the show. The two shows were cobbled together and – with some new, naughtier footage spliced in, Snakes on a Plane-style – Cruel Intentions 2 was born. This explains many of the unresolved plot points and underused characters that crop up in the film, and also accounts for Danielle’s sudden personality change late on. It goes without saying that it also explains the otherwise nonsensical line ‘We sound like a cancelled television series.’ An explanation, however, is not the same as a valid excuse; and while you can’t blame the producers for trying to recoup some of their expenditure, the straight-to-video result is not a great work of art – or, for that matter, a particularly alluring piece of sleaze.
Very briefly towards the end of the film, Cruel Intentions 2 steams up a bit and behaves like a proper film, though it quickly goes back off the boil during a silly twist and daft denouement. If it had been designed, financed and structured as a film from the off, Manchester Prep might have stood a chance; if it had been allowed to blossom into a raunchier-than-usual teen TV show, Cruel Intentions might have made a few waves (and Dunne may well have grown into the role). As it turned out, this choppy, lacklustre prequel is destined to please pretty much no-one.