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‘Pretty Persuasion’ is pretty simplistic

Longtime music video director Marcos Siega and screenwriter Skander Halim apparently are trying to say something with this tale of Machiavellian manipulation at a tony Beverly Hills private school. But what?
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Heathers.” “Election.” Anything by Todd Solondz. Even “Cruel Intentions.” All of these films skewer their intended targets with more precision and depth than the similarly themed but overreaching “Pretty Persuasion.”

Longtime music video director Marcos Siega and screenwriter Skander Halim apparently are trying to say something with this tale of Machiavellian manipulation at a tony Beverly Hills private school. But what?

People are duplicitous and cruel. They’re ignorant and racist. They’re selfish and gluttonous.

And your point is ...?

References to the war in Iraq and conflict in the Middle East, school shootings and the media presumably are meant to provide social and political relevance in the midst of this broad satire, but instead ring hollow and feel wedged-in.

At least Evan Rachel Wood serves as a steady, substantive anchor as Kimberly Joyce, the brilliant and beautiful queen bee of Roxbury Academy. Wood is a star, period, with maturity and poise beyond her 17 years and fair, fine features reminiscent of Nicole Kidman. Previously the one being led astray in “Thirteen,” Wood is now the one doing the devilish leading. Her performance — and some darkly funny dialogue early on — are the most compelling parts of a film that rolls irretrievably downhill.

Things begin in biting fashion as Kimberly escorts new student Randa (Adi Schnall), an immigrant from the Middle East, around campus and smugly explains the various classmates and cliques (which calls to mind another movie with a similar setting, “Clueless”).

“Randa, this is Barry,” she says upon the arrival of an oafish teen boy. “Barry is technically my boyfriend, except I don’t really like him.”

Afternoon porn and TwinkiesKimberly introduces Randa to the rebellious thrill of afternoon porn and Twinkies (stolen from her father, an epithet-spewing, coke-snorting industrialist played by an over-the-top James Woods), followed by that requisite teen-girl ritual, forced vomiting. Along for the ride is Kimberly’s alleged best friend, Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), whose wholesome tastes run toward cardigans and pink hair ribbons.

Brittany, we learn, is dating Kimberly’s ex-boyfriend, the fair-haired Troy (Stark Sands). Brittany also gets to play the lead in the school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a role that aspiring-actress Kimberly originally won. Neither of these transgressions can destroy their bond; even at age 15, Kimberly knows to keep her friends close and her enemies closer.

Besides, she’ll need Brittany’s help — and Randa’s — to destroy their English teacher/drama coach, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), with accusations of sexual assault. (This part calls to mind “Wild Things.” And admit it — you watch it every time it comes on cable.)

An ambitious TV news reporter (Jane Krakowski) breathlessly covers every minute of Anderson’s trial, which begins with startling swiftness considering the judicial system in California.

After a while, though, “Pretty Persuasion” becomes breathless itself. Siega and Halim cram in too much and seem far too interested in shock for shock’s sake as the film hurtles toward its denouement. Experimental lesbianism, anal sex, a drug-popping bulldog, a lawyer in a wheelchair — name it, it’s in here.

What started out as light and breezy turns self-serious and heavy-handed — and not entirely persuasive.