'Pretty Persuasion' Is Pretty Unconvincing

Josh Zuckerman and Evan Rachel Wood in the dishonest
Josh Zuckerman and Evan Rachel Wood in the dishonest "Pretty Persuasion." (By Alan Markfield -- Samuel Goldwyn Films And Roadside Attractions)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 26, 2005

In 2003, Evan Rachel Wood was in "Thirteen," a devastatingly honest, tough look at teenage life. Now she's in "Pretty Persuasion," a devastatingly dishonest, tough look at teenage life.

The difference, I suppose, is tone: "Thirteen" fashioned itself as tragic anthropology as much as drama and it convinced down to the tiniest piece of costume jewelry and sneaker lace as it watched Wood turn from naive outsider into one of her school's coolest but meanest girls. It was so pitch-perfect in its evocation of girl-hell that it broke your heart.

By contrast, "Pretty Persuasion" considers itself snarky black comedy, one of those self-consciously "outrageous" artifacts that means to shock even as it amuses.

Its problem is that its makers haven't done the homework that Catherine Hardwicke, "Thirteen's" director, did and so the movie never feels real.

It simply has nothing to do with real life. It doesn't convince at the detail level, and so it feels airless as well as clueless.

Wood, somehow more amorphous, plays Kimberly Joyce, who seems to have it all, except she wants more. A hyper-intelligent Beverly Hills private school student, the 15-year-old wants to be an actress and to rule the school.

She wants her boyfriend Troy back, she wants her girlfriend Brittany punished for acquiring him after he dumped her, she wants a role in a minor-network hot teen series, she wants her teacher and drama coach, Mr. Anderson, destroyed, and she wants to become famous. And she wants to play Anne Frank in the school play. And she does.

And the movie tells how.

Mostly, it has to do with sexual leverage. Kimberly is nothing if not industrious in her plotting, but not terribly creative: The movie returns to certain situations over and over again until it goes beyond the titillating to the depressing, the unsavory, and finally the tedious. I never thought I'd say of a certain act: Not that again!

At the describable level, Kimberly influences two of her toady friends into supporting her contention that Mr. Anderson (played as a total nerd by Ron Livingston, a minor yeoman who's probably never going to become a star) has sexually molested the three of them.

Kimberly's true grudge against Mr. Anderson is that he dumped her as Anne Frank after she made an ugly, loud anti-Semitic remark to a Jewish boy.

The movie chronicles the trial of poor Mr. Anderson and if it has one interesting element it's this: He's not guilty, but he's not really innocent either.

He's what might be called a near-molester, who is clearly sexually attracted to the young women in his charge but who lacks the steely disregard to morality and the complete obliviousness to consequences to actually touch one of them.

Anderson is the most interesting, indeed the only, character in the film.

It follows that his defense, at first, is so clotted with guilt and regret and the awareness that, but for a lack of nerve, he would be guilty, that the case gets much further than it should.

Meanwhile, ever creative in seeking her ends if not very creative in her methodology, Kimberly turns her attention to a TV reporter (Jane Krakowski) and finds a way -- guess, it's not that hard -- to maneuver her toward launching a big pro-Kimberly media blitz. But the director and the writer aren't knowledgeable enough about media, TV especially, to make this seem believable.

The director, Marcos Siega, is trying for an arch, sardonic tone of the sort that sustained classically mordant accounts of teen perfidy such as "Heathers" or "Cruel Intentions," but it's really beyond his grasp, and sophisticated dialogue is beyond the grasp of screenwriter Skander Halim.

The movie just plays flat, with the single exception of James Woods, in a career-destroying rampage as Kimberly's crude, loud, bombastic father. He's done better.

Pretty Persuasion (105 minutes at Landmark's E Street, Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for mega profanity and sexual situations.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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