Monday, November 21, 2011

Movies I Love: 10 Things I Hate About You

by Patrick Bromley

When it comes to talking about movies, the internets can be an ugly, hateful place, devoted to tearing down anything and everything but rarely stopping to build anything up (unless it's directed by Christopher Nolan). And while we here at F This Movie! are often guilty of bitter negativity, we do (believe it or not) try and temper our hate with thoughtful reasoning and optimism for the endless possibility of something better. Because a spoonful of sugar makes the arsenic taste slightly less poisony. Or something.

It is in this spirit of positivity that I want to start championing the movies we love, especially when they might not be the most obvious choices. So what better place to start than with a long-forgotten teen comedy?

Much of the last seven days of movie writing online have been devoted to Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and how it's the worst thing that so many people like. Some of the pieces are carefully considered and written in all caps, like this one. Most are just bile that dismiss the movie without taking much time to consider what any of it means, for better or worse. And as much as I would love to pile on, I haven't seen it. I saw the first two Twilight movies, and I don't get the appeal. I don't think they're very good, but I also don't think they're for me. As much as I like what Film Crit Hulk has to say about the series, it's not really me he's talking to. I wish the Twilight fans would read the piece (they will not) and consider what he has to say about this thing that they love. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, that is what the world needs more of: people thinking about the things they like and why they like them.

What I'm saying is that not all movies about teenage romance have to be all angsty and serious and place such emphasis on a single relationship. Dating in your teens isn't about meeting the one person you are destined to be with forever and doing whatever it takes to be together. It's about meeting someone you like and who likes you, and learning how to care about someone in that way and how to let him or her care for you. It's more about the function of learning of to be in a relationship than it is about the person you are with. Bad relationships teach us about what we do and don't want in a partner, and what we do and don't like about ourselves in a relationship. So do the good ones. That's kind of what brought me to the 1999 teen comedy/Shakespeare rip-off 10 Things I Hate About You, because that's what the movie is about. Sort of.

It’s probably a stretch to say I love 10 Things I Hate About You. I don’t loooove it. I wouldn’t marry it and have 10,000 of its babies. But it’s been on my mind lately, and as an unfairly maligned teen comedy it seemed like a perfect fit for what I so often want to do at F This Movie!: defend movies that are better than people give them credit for being. And though it may be an ineffectual little teen romance, 10 Things I Hate About You fits that bill.
Released shortly after the second wave of teen movies that began in the late 1990s (which kicked off with She’s All That, a movie that’s considerably worse than people often acknowledge), 10 Things was largely dismissed upon its release. Sure, it had a few things going for it: a talented young cast, led by Australian newcomer Heath Ledger (written off as another pretty boy by a lot of folks, including me), some genuine hipster attitude and, most notably, that it drew inspiration from The Taming of the Shrew. That last fact alone should have clued audiences into the fact that 10 Things I Hate About You had more on its mind than the standard teen fare; unfortunately, just a year before every review of She’s All That had also made mention of the fact that it was pretty much just an updated version of Pygmalion, meaning that teening up classic stories was simply misinterpreted as common practice.

But, believe it or not, 10 Things I Hate About You is something special. It’s smarter and cooler than its teen comedy brethren. Better yet, it’s sincere and, like the best films of John Hughes, treats the feelings and desires of its young characters with respect. It’s refreshingly honest and straightforward about sex and partying, recognizing that kids do both and needn’t be defined by either (it’s kind of remarkable that the movie got a PG-13 rating; these days, there’s no question it would get an R and have been softened down, which would be a shame). There’s also a go-for-broke approach to the comedy, likely the result of TV director Gil Junger making his first feature film and being willing to take chances; the result is a comedy that gets laughs from clever dialogue as well as some truly bizarre slapstick elements. Somehow, though, Junger pulls it all together into something that feels like a cohesive, organic piece -- the more obvious gags don’t stick out as setpieces the way they do in less successful teen comedies (probably because they never involve characters making pee-pee or poo-poo). There’s also that cast: star-making turns from Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, plus funny supporting performances by Larry Miller, Allison Janney and David Krumholtz. And, in addition to Ledger, you’ve got a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is sweet and goofy); I don’t think I’ve seen two of the best actors of their generation together in a movie made for teenagers since Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage shared the screen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith in Weird Science. But mostly the first one.
This is probably going to sound weird to some people (and downright sacrilegious to others), but more than maybe any other movie, 10 Things I Hate About You is the movie that makes me feel sad for the loss of Heath Ledger. More than Brokeback Mountain. More even than The Dark Knight. It took me a long time to warm up to Ledger as an actor; it’s not that he was ever bad in movies, just that he made a whole lot of bad movies that I had no interest in seeing (The Order? The Four Feathers? Ned Kelly?) and the movies of his I did see didn’t do much for me (The Patriot, Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm). I was impressed by his small role in Monster’s Ball (probably because I still had it in my head that he was a lightweight, and because SPOILER he had the good sense to check out before it went from really depressing to crazy super blow-your-head-off depressing) and am one of a small group of people who really like A Knight’s Tale, but that was about it. It wasn’t until Brokeback Mountain, I guess, that I started seeing him in a different light. Coupled with his performances in I’m Not There (a potential future entry for “Movies I Love”) and The Dark Knight (full disclosure: I was very against his casting when I first heard about it, but he’s so great in the part that fuck me), Ledger was actually becoming one of my favorite actors right around the time he died at age 29. And no movie makes me miss him more than this one.

Why is that? I think it’s because he’s so young and has his whole career and life still ahead of him, and watching him now as a 20-year old kid and knowing how it all ends makes his performance a lot more poignant. He’s not particularly revelatory in the film -- he’s charming enough, but there’s little that suggests of what he would eventually be capable. But what I really like about Heath Ledger in the movie (and the same could be said about Julia Stiles, and just about the entire cast with the exception of Andrew Keegan, who plays a cartoonish buffoon like he’s acting in any other teen comedy and not one as special as this) is that he takes all of this seriously. He doesn’t brood or go method or anything (there’s little worse than a ‘look-ma-I-can-act’ performance in a movie that absolutely doesn’t call for it), but he treats the character with intelligence and respect. It’s a quality that would define his work for the remainder of his career. Here he’s just a kid trying to do a good job, and that’s what makes it sad to know he’s gone.

There’s something else I really like about 10 Things I Hate About You that I don’t see in a lot of other movies targeted at teenagers: Ledger and Stiles aren’t afraid to be physical with one another. That may seem like a small thing, but it’s another example of the way that the film treats its young characters with respect. I’m not saying the leads are two kids constantly playing grab-ass; in fact, there’s not a whole lot of physicality between them. When there is, though, both actors throw themselves into it -- call it chemistry or whatever, but there’s a real maturity and sensitivity to the way they touch one another. It’s so rare to see romance in teen films that isn’t boiled down to a) horny groping or b) sweeping, only-in-a-movie gestures (the kiss that comes at the end of a movie that rarely feels like anything but two actors doing another take). To see two characters who are smart, who know what they want and who genuinely care for one another -- particularly as the center of a movie with more than a few elements of slapstick and silliness -- grounds 10 Things I Hate About You in a believable reality matched by few other films for teenagers (though Say Anything comes to mind).
In conversations about the film, a lot has been made of the poem that Stiles-as-Kat reads near the end. At long last, the scene features the outpouring of emotion that Kat has been building to -- her defenses have finally crumbled, and underneath we discover (surprise!) a wounded girl who spends her life putting people at a distance to avoid just this kind of display of anguish. She reads aloud a poem, titled (what else?) “10 Things I Hate About You,” and it goes a little something like this:

I hate the way you talk to me,
and the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car,
I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots
and the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick,
it even makes me rhyme.
I hate the way you’re always right,
I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh,
even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around,
and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you,
not even close
not even a little bit
not even at all.


On the 10th anniversary DVD edition of the film that came out a couple of years ago, there’s an extended interview with the movie’s writers, Karen Lutz and Kirsten Smith, in which they talk about how proud they are of that poem and the way its resonated with fans of the film -- that the whole movie builds towards that moment and if they had failed to stick that poem, everything else could have collapsed.

Only here’s the thing: the poem sucks. And that’s what’s great about it.

I’ve always found the poem scene to be one of the best in the movie, but I seem to be at tremendous odds with Lutz and Smith (wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last...) about what it is that makes that scene work. They seem to think it’s the cleverness and romanticism of their prose. Wrong. The poem is utterly mediocre, but that’s why it works. It’s exactly the kind of poem a high school girl would write and be proud enough of to read in front of her class. Only it’s not great. That line about “it even makes me rhyme?” Barf. But I can picture the writers being very proud of themselves when they came up with that one.

Still, the scene works. It’s yet another believably high-school moment in a movie that surprisingly filled with them (another movie would have had a poem that’s way outside of Kat’s capabilities as a writer, which would have pulled me right out of the scene). But what really makes the scene work is the way that Julia Stiles sells it -- she rushes through the lines at first, almost embarrassed of what she’s reading (and rightfully so). Then she gets to that “rhyme” line and she’s back to being sarcastic and defensive. From there, though, it’s a steady descent into full-on tears, and Stiles gets every beat of it just right. I've never been a big of Julia Stiles (more accurately, I've never bothered to form an opinion of Julia Stiles), but her performance in this movie suggests she would go on to have a career that's very different than the one she actually had. When, at the end of the poem, she finally looks up from the paper and faces down Heath Ledger, it’s a powerful reminder of just how deeply these teenage characters are capable of feeling, and how even stupid teen-movie actions have real consequences. It’s incredibly moving for a scene that's otherwise perfunctory and shouldn’t be moving at all.

It’s a little unusual that I’ve chosen to kick off this feature with a seemingly dispensable (or an actually dispensable) teen movie. Part of the reason is because I was originally going to do this in the order in which I come across the titles on my DVD shelves, and the numerical titles are first. I’ve given up on that idea, however, because I’d rather write about the movies that I’m living with as I’m living with them. And while I certainly don’t love the movie the way I love future films in this series (Starship Troopers or Joe Versus the Volcano or True Romance or Phantom of the Paradise or Streets of Fire), I’ve always had a real love of the teen romantic comedy. 10 Things I Hate About You is a terrific entry in the genre -- the best of its kind since the aforementioned days of classic Hughes. It’s not a great movie. It’s just a movie I love.

8 comments:

  1. I only saw "10 Things..." once when it came in theaters the same Friday that "The Matrix" premiered in 1999. I remember because (a) I dragged a friend with me to see "10 Things..." (he hated it, I didn't much care for it) and (b) 30 minutes after it ended we were in a long-ass line in Times Square to see "The Matrix" (he loved it, I did't much care for it... yep, I was a hipster back then! :-P).

    I only wanted to see "10 Things..." because Larisa Oleynik (Bianca), star of my still-favorite show of all time (Nickelodeon's "The Secret World of Alex Mack") was starring in it. It took a few more movies for me to get the message, but just because you like someone on a movie or TV show doesn't mean you have to see or like everything else they work on. You Patrick didn't even mention Bianca/Oleynik once in your review, and that's a testament to the screen presence of Ledger and Stiles (or to the fact that Oleynik's supporting role as the younger dating sister is only important as the catalyst that gets other characters and the plot into action). Even knowing Oleynik is a participant in the anniversary edition commentary track of "10 Things..." can get me to rent/buy/listen to it. Why? Because it's not (and never will be) "The Secret World of Alex Mack." Let Ceasar have what belongs to Ceasar.

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  2. The omission of any mention of Larisa Oleynik was not intentional, but rather, as you said, just the result of having other, better aspects of the movie to talk about. She does a fine job and is very appealing in the movie (the whole ensemble is, really), but isn't given a whole lot more to do. I'm glad she doesn't play TOO bratty or spoiled, because that would make it really hard for us to root for Joseph Gordon Levitt. And she has that one really nice scene with Julia Stiles near the end of the movie. I've never seen The Secret World of Alex Mack, so I obviously don't have the same affection as you, but your point about someone's appeal not always translating to other projects is well taken. I used to like the show Friends, but the movies starring the cast of Friends? Not so much.

    Thanks for reading!

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  3. Hello Patrick.
    Been a fan of your podcast for a while, but only just now decided to visit this website. Shame on me I guess.
    I just wanted to mention that I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Heath Ledger in this review and was wondering if you had seen him in a couple of Australian movies that are considered some of his best - Two Hands and Candy.
    Two Hands was one of his first movie performances (made the same year as 10 things) and while it isn't an acting tour-de-force, it is an enjoyable crime comedy.
    Candy on the other hand came after he had established himself and he drew a lot of praise for his performance of one of a pair of drug addicts (the other being Abbie Cornish) who can't live without each other.
    Of course you weren't going to mention every movie Heath had done in this write-up, but as they would be two of his lesser-seen films I was just curious as to whether you had watched or even heard about them.

    I look forward to checking out the rest of your site.

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    1. Thanks, Nick! Great to meet you and welcome.

      I know I've seen Candy and remember being impressed by the performances but not loving the movie, but that's just because of my own weird thing where I don't really like movies about addiction. That one's on me.

      I haven't seen Two Hands, though, so I'll be sure to give it a look. Thanks for the recommendations, and I hope you'll stick with us!

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    2. Nick, I take it you're from Oz. Hi, Perth here :-)

      I concur with you about Two Hands, although I admit it was definitely a "right place/right time" movie for me. I see it as the Australian Pulp Fiction, like Lock Stock is UKs PF, as they were part of the many hip gangster films that came out in PFs wake.

      "Call 013!"

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  4. Really terrific review, and I agree completely. This is one of my favorite teen movies.

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  5. Great review I completely agree with. One of the very few teen movies I've rated 7 or higher on the IMDB.
    "... never been a big of Julia Stiles (), but her performance in this movie suggests she would go on to have a career that's very different than the one she actually had."
    This mirrors my thoughts on Julia Stiles, who I really like because she is talented and not the typical bland pretty face usually playing those parts.
    2 years after "10 things..." she gave an equally grounded and believable performance in another teen love story in "Save the last dance", this one with a racial twist.
    Sadly besides her "Bourne" role and one fine season of "Dexter" her career seems to be sputtering along.

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  6. I have fond memories of popping this movie int he VCR with my brothers when my parents were either gone or asleep. I was only 10 or 11 when it came out on video and my sister bought it and we watched it countless times. I need to revisit it because I do think it will hold up and stand the test of time as one of the better teen comedies out there. Great article!

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