10 Things I Hate About You
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Heath Ledger (Patrick Verona), Julia Stiles (Katarina Stratford), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Cameron James), Larisa Oleynik (Bianca Stratford), David Krumholtz (Michael Eckman), Andrew Keegan (Joey Donner), Susan May Pratt (Mandella), Gabrielle Union (Chastity), Larry Miller (Walter Stratford), Daryl Mitchell (Mr. Morgan), Allison Janney (Ms. Perky)
"10 Things I Hate About You," the latest in this year's endless stream of literary classics modernized and updated for the teenage set (in this case, William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew"), thankfully gets better as it progresses. The movie is positively terrible in its opening minutes, abusing every available teenage-movie cliché while also stretching and straining for laughs with jokes that are not only unfunny, but unbelievable.
The movie starts with the biggest teenage-movie cliché of all, the explicit explanation by one character to another of all the various subgroups at a large suburban high school. In this case, it's the geeky Michael (David Krumholtz) explaining to the new kid at school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of "Third Rock From the Sun"). You can tell this is a worn-out cliché because the social groups in cinematic high schools keep getting weirder and weirder. In the days of John Hughes comedies, it was simply jocks and geeks with a few freaks in the middle. In "10 Things I Hate About You," there's a subgroup of cowboys (mind you, this takes place in Seattle, Washington), future Wall Street brokers, and white Bob Marley-wanna-bes complete with dreadlocks and Rastafarian hats.
Despite his status as the new kid, Cameron is intent on going out with a popular but vapid sophomore named Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik). But, Cameron is faced with a dual dilemma: not only is Bianca more interested in the studly but even more vapid Joey (Andrew Keegan), a budding male model, but Bianca's overprotective father (Larry Miller) has decreed that she cannot date until her older sister dates. That wouldn't be so much of a problem, except for the fact that her sister, Katarina (Julia Stiles), is the epitome an the angry white woman, a beautiful yet bitter senior who refuses to date mostly because it's what people expect her to do, and she doesn't want to do anything that people expect.
To remedy the situation, Cameron convinces Joey (who also wants to date Bianca) to pay someone to go out with Katarina so Bianca will be freed from her chains. That someone turns out to be Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), a grungy-looking senior who is surrounded by rumors that have made him into something of a high school legend. According to the myth, he spent the past year in San Quentin, sold his liver to buy new speakers, set a state trooper on fire, and ate a live duck--"everything but the feet and the bill."
But, guess what? Maybe Patrick's not such a hard guy. In fact, he may even be a little soft, a romantic who doesn't mind singing in front of the entire school if it will get Katarina's attention. In some ways, he reminded me of the misunderstood character played by Adam Baldwin in "My Bodyguard" (1980)--both are sensitive souls who are lost in the mythology about their misplaced badness.
And, guess what else? Maybe Katarina isn't such a bitter wench after all. Maybe there's reason behind her anger, and Patrick is just the guy to melt it away. And, if that isn't enough for you, perhaps Bianca will realize that there's more to life than dating studly but shallow guys like Joey, and find her true love with the frail, but sensitive Cameron.
If "10 Things I Hate About You" is a touch predictable (how much you wanna bet Katarina finds out Patrick has been paid to take her out when they are on their big date at the prom?), it is still enjoyable in a frivolous, but often amusing and even tender manner. The beginning of the film is saddled with scenes involving a bizarre guidance counselor named Ms. Perky (Allison Janney) who gives no guidance to speak of, refers to students as "shitheads" to other students, and spends most of her time writing hot, torrid sex novels on her laptop. This is the unfunny humor of which I spoke in the first paragraph, and the movie benefits greatly from dropping her character in the first 15 minutes.
She is, however, replaced with another bizarre adult creation, this one an angry black English professor (Daryl Mitchell) who also curses in front of his students, ridicules them to their faces, and throws them out of class for no particular reason. There is an amusing bit where he goes off on the white man's oppressive nature, and when the Bob Marley-wanna-be group chimes in with support, he lashes out, "Don't even get me going on you guys." But, overall, his character feels strangely misplaced; he is mostly likely screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith's desperate attempt to inject some race issues into the story, even if they're played for laughs.
"10 Things I Hate About You" is definitely at its best when it's concentrating on the teenage characters--it has no sense of how adults fit into the teens' lives, and thus reduces them to hysterical, ridiculous caricatures like the aforementioned guidance counselor and English teacher, both of whom would be fired and sued in six months if they were working in a real middle-class American high school (trust me on this--my wife is a teacher). Aside from those badly tuned scenes, first-time feature director Gil Junger, graduating from TV sitcoms like "Blossom" and "Dharma and Greg," shows a surprisingly sensitive touch in some of the scenes, especially the ones between Katarina and Patrick.
While they come out of the movie as believable characters, Bianca and Cameron suffer somewhat because they do not get nearly as much screen time together to develop their relationship. Patrick's gradual wearing down of Katarina's defenses isn't particularly original, but it does ring true. He seems like the type who would be capable of doing it, mostly because Katarina can't scare him off in the first 10 minutes. The movie has some nice themes about being yourself and not accepting others' ideas of who you should be, although the movie is just as infatuated with beautiful people as any other teen flick, thus reducing the impact of any positive messages it might have.
As with "She's All That," a similarly themes story that came out earlier this year, the worst parts of the film are salvaged by the immense likability of the performers. Julia Stiles--who, interestingly enough, will star in two more updates of Shakespeare plays later this year--strikes a nice balance by making Katarina a "wild beast," as she's described at one point, but one with feelings and reasoning. Heath Ledger is also good as the misunderstood outcast, even though he looks more like a model than the utterly cheesy-looking Andrew Keegan, who appears to be wearing eyeliner throughout the picture.
Otherwise, "10 Things I Hate About You" is standard teen comedy fare. It has a bouncy soundtrack of popular music, hip and colorful wardrobes for all its characters, and a rather bizarre sense of humor. The movie throws in a few pratfalls here and there, and even a gross-out joke to round out all those references to the Bard. Overall, it isn't particular creative or especially memorable, but there have certainly been worse.
©1999 James Kendrick