When Buffy is good, she is very good, and when she is bad, she is horrid.
In this case, horrid is very good indeed, as the actress who plays TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Sarah Michelle Gellar, portrays a consummate villain in the new movie "Cruel Intentions."
Yet another adaptation of the 18th-century novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," it's a tale of unlikely yet wickedly amusing debauchery and manipulation among the teen set.
Their counterparts here are Kathryn Merteuil (Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), as hopelessly rich Manhattan stepsiblings with an equal taste for intrigue and each other.
Their kinky rapport results in a wager.
If Sebastian can seduce their school headmaster's daughter, Annette (a radiant Reese Witherspoon), whose essay in Seventeen declares she'll be a virgin until she marries, then Kathryn will let him have his way with her. If he fails, he has to give up his hot little car, a 1956 Jag convertible.
As the games commence, they play their acquaintances like pawns.
Sebastian uses a football player with a sordid secret to find out who has warned Annette about him. The innocent Cecile (Selma Blair), goofy in her awkwardness, is dating the guy who dumped Kathryn. So Kathryn seeks revenge by getting Sebastian to deflower Cecile. Then the stepsibs manipulate Cecile's budding romance with her earnest music teacher (Sean Patrick Thomas).
As in "Dangerous Liaisons," Sebastian Valmont doesn't count on the real feelings that develop when he becomes close to Annette -- or his stepsister's viperous reflex to strike at his heart.
Writer and first-time director Roger Kumble cleverly modernizes the story, stylishly updating the setting and sensibilities of the characters.
It's easy to forgive inconsistencies, such as Sebastian and Kathryn's heightened language (maybe that's what a prep school education buys you) or the strange way most of these teens look and behave, as if they're eerily mature twentysomethings. And talk about absent parents! No wonder these "kids" are dressing like designer vamps, sniffing coke out of crucifix-shaped vials and copulating like bunnies.
Kumble entertainingly heightens the humor, but at the expense of the finale. The script's diabolical glee makes the tragic denouement seem an absurdly operatic coda to what has been, until that point, a dark comedy. Purist qualms aside, even a happy ending might have worked better here -- remember how delicious "Cyrano" became in Steve Martin's contemporary "Roxanne"? It wouldn't have been much of a stretch; Kumble has already tweaked the "Liaisons" plot to enhance the romance.
Despite the last 10 minutes, there's much to like in "Cruel Intentions."
The cast is universally convincing. Gellar ably conveys Kathryn's cold heart and bitter possessiveness. And Phillippe, who at times evinces the same reptilian charm and even inflections as Malkovich, sympathetically portrays the conflicted Valmont as he travels from depravity to redemption.
Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe
Directed by Roger Kumble
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated R (language, sexuality, drug use, brief nudity and violence)
Running time: 97 minutes
Sun score: * * *
Pub Date: 3/05/99