Friday, October 9, 2009
There's nothing like a movie based on a Shakespearean play to get the teenage hormones firing. Well, perhaps not in their original form, but take out all of those "thees" and "thous" and you've got yourself the basis of a juicy, teen-friendly blockbuster hit. The real key is to trick kids into thinking that what they're watching is in no way tied to anything remotely educational or character-building, and leave them to be midguidedly amused upon reading the original and finding that the main characters share names with some of their favorite teen movie roles.
In the 90s, Shakespeare was actually pretty standard cinema fare, though 10 Things I Hate About You was most apt at repackaging the original concept. There was Baz Luhrman's iconic Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream with Michelle Pfiffer and Calista Flockhart, reincarnations of both Hamlet and The Twelfth Night, and even the semi-autobiographical Shakespeare in Love featuring Gwenyth Paltrow. Someone out there must have seen the rise in Shakespeare's 90s cinema stock and thought to themselves, "Now how I can I make this appealing to teenagers who consistently fall asleep while reading their 10th-grade English class copies of Macbeth?"
Indeed, moviemakers were up to the challenge, releasing 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999, a clever rethinking of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. See how much it helps to change the name? I'm not a hundred percent certain I could even recognize a shrew in a forest ranger lineup of woodland creatures, and I can't imagine delighting in the fact that the term was meant to describe the lowly and second-rate social status of women. A squirrel maybe, but a shrew? Really? They're not even industrious or cuddly. How insulting.
Lucky for us the new teen version respun the tale to include a mild dose of feminist manifesto, thus canceling out the play's original message of female subordination to their obviously superior male counterparts. In short, we were given an upbeat and more enlightened retelling of the original Shakespeare tale, though at least the initial setup of the storyline remained relatively intact. Cast any film with good looking, well-dressed teenagers and we'll all quickly forget that it's somehow laced into the rich heritage of significant 26th century literary tradition.
Even from the trailer alone it's easy to see all of the wonderful 90s teen movie cliches that so defined this iconic genre. Teen comedies were all the range, though 10 Things proved to be a bit smarter than its peers. For instance, it refused to employ the cheap trick of giving our supposed outcast glasses, which is essentially the equivalent of having a character cough to indicate future terminal illness. Instead, 10 Things gives us a sassy, independent-thinking social deviant who is cool in her own right, even if she doesn't abide by the same rigid standards of mainstream high school coolness as her sister. For a teen movie, that's a pretty lofty feat.
It's true to its Shakespearean roots in its utterly complicated and twisted plot. We open on Cameron's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first day of school as his nerdy escort Michael gives him the grand tour complete with requisite clique overview. In the midst of his orientation, Cameron spots the beautiful and popular Bianca (Larissa Oleynik, who I still generally refer to as Alex Mack for mental cataloging purposes) and is immediately taken in by her physical charms. Michael wisely tries to dissuade his delusional companion, but he's too far gone to be swayed by logic. Instead, he signs on as Bianca's French tutor, ignoring the fact that he himself does not speak French.
Meanwhile, Bianca is smitten with tube sock model and toolbox extraordinaire Joey (Andrew Keegan), who while admittedly a dreamboat in the looks department is less than brimming with sparkling wit and conversational skills. Unless the conversation is about him, of course. Bianca's joyride is outed by bitter sister Kat (Julia Stiles), forcing their single father to reconsider his ironclad anti-dating policy. The new policy turns out to be Bianca can date when Kat chooses to date, creating a sticky and notably uncomfortable situation for all. Strategic parenting at its finest.
Cameron starts on as Bianca's French tutor, during which time he learns about Bianca's newly enforced dating restriction. Cameron and Michael hatch a scheming plan to find a suitable suitor for surly sister Kat. He approaches Patrick (the late great Heath Ledger), an Aussie loner with a reputation for dangerous behavior. After failing to convince Patrick themselves, Cameron and Michael consider a new strategy and enlist the help of BMOC Joey Donner. They broker a deal for Joey to pay Patrick in exchange for his Kat-wooing services, unaware of his role as middleman to Cameron.
Michael, angry for being chastised by his former group of nerdy preps, starts a rumor that classmate and rival Bogey Lowenstein's intimate get-together for his pre-WASPy friends is actually a party brimming with free beer and live music. All the while Kat is underwhelmed (maybe just whelmed?) by Patrick's attempts at romance
The whole school shows up at the Lowenstein residence, including Bianca and Kat after the former begged the latter to attend. Kat gets outstandingly drunk, dances on a table, and incurs a near-concussion as a result. Patrick is at her side the whole way, seemingly charmed by his former burden. Cameron learns that Bianca was actually playing him rather than the other way around, as she was using him as a pawn in her path to Joeydom. However, Cameron offers Bianca a ride home and is granted a kiss in return, refocusing his intentions.
After sobering up, Kat remains unimpressed by Patrick's attempts until he performs the ultimate grand gesture that left teen girls everywhere swooning:
There are some minor hiccups but Patrick manages to convince Kat that his intentions are true, which is actually pretty false and he's receiving $300 for his services. Granted, he seems to be into her, but I can't imagine I'd be pleased to find someone was being paid to date me. Bianca and Kat both end up at the prom on the respective arms of Cameron and Patrick, leaving Joey in the proverbial dust. Oh, and Bianca wears this godawful midriff baring two-piece number. Really, it's just completely hideous.
Joey spills the beans about the deal in a rage and justifiably, Kat's pretty pissed. Oh, and Bianca punches Joey and it's awesome. Almost makes up for the dress. But really, not quite.
Back at school, Kat reads her self-referential poem of the movie's namesake, "10 Things I Hate About You":
Everything and everyone comes to blows, but all seems well that ends well. Patrick buys Kat a guitar with his dirty bribe money, Kat's father permits her to go to her first-choice school Sarah Lawrence, and Bianca and Cameron are an item. Everything is fairly neatly tidied up for the ending as expected, but it's still sort of sweet.
It may not have been actual Shakespeare, but the movie did showcase a humor and wittiness that far outpaced its teen film genre competitors. Plus, it had a kickass soundtrack, or at least I perceived it to be back in junior high. Pretty much everyone left theaters humming Letters to Cleo's cover of "I Want You to Want Me", after all.
The movie relied on a lot of cliched teen movie tropes, but it turned some on their head as well. It was a better, smarter version of our stereotypical movie offerings, giving us a new teen world in which senior girls flash their soccer coaches as a diversion tactic and quirky school guidance counselors write smutty romances between sessions. What's not to like?