Monday, June 29, 2009

Unpro Goes Retro: 10 Things I Hate About You

Normally I won't be reaching into my child- and teen-hood for material: my friends at The Dairi Burger, Dibbly Fresh and other young adult lit blogs are amazing with the snark. That said, a few weeks ago I was enjoying the senseless crapfest that is Grease 2 on ABC Family (don't judge my choice of networks, yo: have you seen Greek? It's hilarious) when a "sneak preview" promo came on. Turns out, ABC Family has remade the late-nineties teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About a series.





If this makes sense to you, I IMPLORE you to leave a comment explaining why. I'll listen, I promise. I'll probably argue back, but I will at least hear you out.

Hey, I'm not knocking all movies-turned-TV-shows. It was a little before my time, but M*A*S*H supposedly improved on the original Robert Altman film...and ran for like ten years. I never got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but if my pals are to be believed, the series excellently revamped a crappy B-movie that I remember watching at a seventh-grade sleepover (and even then, 12-year-old Unpro was not impressed).

Perhaps my favorite example is Friday Night Lights, which even the original film director Peter Berg admits works much better as a series because characters can be more fully developed and themes fleshed out and explored, such as racism, class difference, and the pressure to constantly WIN WIN WIN from a small town that doesn't have much else going for it. (Can you tell that I LOVE Friday Night Lights? I'm also the furthest thing from a football fan you can imagine. Give Season 1 a try, it's wonderful and you can get the DVD box set really cheap.)

But for every film with potential for growth and general awesomeness as a series, such as Friday Night Lights, there's at least five cases of what were the development executives snorting when they green-lighted this? I give you: 1) Uncle Buck, 2) A League of Their Own, 3) My Big Fat Greek Life, 4) Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and 5) Manchester Prep. (To be fair, the last one--based on Cruel Intentions--was never picked up. Maybe someone went to rehab. Instead, the three filmed episodes were edited together and released straight to video as Cruel Intentions 2. You know who starred in this piece of celluloid brilliance? Amy Adams. So happy that she still got to have a career after that.)

Granted, I was probably a little older than the target audience when 10 Things came out. I can still remember seeing it: I was eighteen, home from my first year at college, and had just eaten Mexican food with two of my high school pals. I was a fan of Julia Stiles--she felt like someone I could be friends with. I was familiar with Larisa Oleynik--my sister had been a fan of The Secret World of Alex Mack--and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who'd been in the Angels in the Outfield remake and appeared to be growing up very nicely. And then there was this Australian newcomer named Heath Ledger who had very bad hair. Seriously--that 'do was AWFUL. Like a stringy dead animal on his head. I mean, I know he was supposed to be a bad boy who didn't care about his hair, but ew.

Brief plot rundown: it's a modern-day, late-nineties version of The Taming of the Shrew set in Seattle. Cameron, the new kid at Padua High School (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for cutie-pie sophomore Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) at first sight. However, Bianca is not only pining for pretty-boy tool Joey (Andrew Keegan) but she also isn't allowed to date. Bianca's obstetrician single dad is paranoid that his daughters will get pregnant, but finally makes a compromise: Bianca can date, when her older sister Kat does. The catch? Kat (Julia Stiles) is strong-willed, opinionated and does things like run her car into Joey's when he insults her. Not so popular in high school. But Cameron and his pal Michael (the hilarious David Krumholz) have a plan: manipulate Joey into paying the personality-challenged Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to go out with Kat, so Cameron is free to woo Bianca. (Among the rumors circulating about Patrick: he sold his own liver, knows Marilyn Manson, and spent last year in San Quentin prison.) Naturally, since this is a teen movie, hilarious misunderstandings ensue and romance triumphs over all.
I remember liking it. Not loving it. It was fine, but I liked She's All That better.

I watched it a couple of times in college--same reaction. Then on a random Sunday afternoon when I was in law school, I was at my parents' house and that magic thing happened: when you're flipping channels and you catch a movie right when it starts. I had recently seen Brick and was gaga for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plus I had a new respect for Heath Ledger after seeing him in Brokeback Mountain and Casanova--two entirely different but equally fantastic performances. I convinced my dad to eschew the NASCAR coverage, and having seen Larry Miller (who plays the dad, Walter) in Christopher Guest movies, he was easily convinced. My mom sat down with us too.

We laughed our asses off.

Granted, my family can recite Sixteen Candles word-for-word. (Even my college-football, trucker dad. ESPECIALLY my college-football trucker dad.) We tend to watch our favorite comedies and Saturday Night Live sketches and proceed to quote them at each other. All the time. We're weird like that.

Weirdness aside, I was pleasantly surprised how well the movie held up (in fact, once I returned to law school, I went out and bought the DVD). 10 Things I Hate About You, here are five things I like about you:

  • The age-appropriate cast. I thought everyone was solid individually, but know what really struck me about these guys as a whole? THEY ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE HIGH SCHOOLERS. Even the notable exception, Heath Ledger's Patrick, got an explanation of why he looked older than his classmates--because he was older, having been out of school for some time. Probably the trick was to cast actors barely out of high school themselves--Julia Stiles and I are the same age, meaning she was about 18 when she played Kat. Interestingly enough, Joseph Gordon-Levitt could still play a convincing high schooler in 2005's Brick, filmed a good six years after 10 Things. (Granted, it was an entirely different kind of movie, but he didn't look out of place at a locker.) (Yes, I love him. Why do you ask?)

  • Granted, we as a public are not fooled by teen shows and movies: since American Graffiti kick-started the genre, we're fully aware that most of the characters are played by legal adults. And we're totally okay with that--in some cases, it's preferable because we can lust after the dudes without feeling pervy. Still, it's refreshing to see young actors whom we could actually picture ourselves roaming the halls with.
  • The super-quotable dialogue and kickass delivery. When I was a theatre major, I was once told that an actor is only as good as his or her script. While I don't agree one hundred percent--I've seen films where I thought an actor's stellar interpretation far transcended the horrid text--I do know that it helps performers hit it out of the park. Besides, I'm a sucker for solid dialogue that I can later quote with my parents. Some of my favorite lines (thanks, IMDb!) include:
  • Walter Stratford: Hello, Katarina. Make anyone cry today? Kat Stratford: Sadly, no. But it's only 4:30.
  • Patrick: What is it with this chick? She have beer-flavored nipples?
  • Walter Stratford: This morning, I delivered a set of twins to a fifteen-year-old girl, do you know what she said to me? Bianca: "I'm a crack-whore who should have made my skeazy boyfriend wear a condom"? Walter Stratford: Close, but no. She said, "I should have listened to my father". Bianca: She did not. Walter Stratford: Well, that's what she would have said if she wasn't so doped up!
  • Bianca: Can we for two seconds ignore the fact that you're severely unhinged and discuss my need for a night of teenage normalcy? Walter Stratford: What's normal? Those damn Dawson's River kids, sleeping in each other's beds and whatnot?

  • Stereotypes, but with heart! Sure, Kat's perpetually angry, Patrick's a personality-challenged slacker, Cameron's a lovesick puppy, and Bianca can only be whelmed in Europe. Plus you have the token best friends--one's a Shakespeare groupie, one is a dork who gets a dick drawn on his face--and the neurotic overprotective dad. Yet, it all works--thanks in large part to a strong screenplay and a charismatic cast. The film respects its viewers enough to explain why the protagonists are how they are: Kat and Bianca's mom walked out when they were younger, and both reacted in different ways. Kat's more outward with her anger, but Bianca's holding onto some residual emotion as well--watch the scene involving their mother's pearls. Patrick may be the bad-boy-with-the-heart-of-gold, but he's got a goofy side which is very appealing (who didn't want to be serenaded on the soccer field after watching him croon "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"?). Kat and Bianca's dad is an obstetrician who's super-paranoid about his daughters getting knocked up--he's also afraid to let go of the little girls he's had to raise on his own. The best teen movies are the ones who don't talk down to their target audience: they realize that it's a complex world out there for everyone once you're not a kid anymore. Therefore, the best teen movies can be enjoyed when viewers are far out of the 13-19 demographic. 10 Things I Hate About You, at least for me, is among the best teen movies. (And trust me, I've watched a LOT of them.)

  • Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. Yes, Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles are two crazy smartass kids who make it work. However, I want to concentrate on Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Larisa Oleynik, whose Cameron and Bianca create the sweet kind of romance you always wanted in high school. He learned French for her, by God! And Bianca isn't as dumb as she looks--Cameron sees that and calls her on it with a scathing, "You know, just because you're beautiful doesn't mean you can treat people like they don't matter." Well said, man. And in the midst of him chewing her out for blowing him off--and being exactly right--she kisses him. Yes, the girl kisses the boy! Even in our supposedly progressive times, you still don't see that in movies very often. Not only that--Bianca later punches out Joey for roughing up Cameron. At prom. Right in front of everyone. Rep be damned, the girl's in love. And it's completely adorable and believable.

  • C'mon, it's Shakespeare. There will be controversy until the end of time as to exactly how original some of Will's plays were. Guess what? I don't care. 100% original or not, the guy took some of the best stories in the world and made them palatable and enjoyable for everyone, from Queen Elizabeth II to the grungiest food-throwing peasant. Yes, like any card-carrying feminist, I have issues with The Taming of the Shrew. I also realize it was written in a completely different time, and the ending doesn't translate quite as well today, which is why it's not as timeless as say, Romeo and Juliet (because teenagers will always, always, always fall in love with people they're not supposed to). That said, come on: the premise rocks. Douchebag dude takes a bribe to "make over" an angry chick so that good-hearted guy can bag angry chick's ditsy lil sis. Of course, everyone falls in lurve. Y'all, that's a good story. 10 Things I Hate About You takes that story and modernizes it very well: yes, Kat stops spewing verbal venom, but she also sets out to form a band, thanks to Patrick's encouragement. Bianca figures out all on her own that her awesome dream guy is in fact not the jerk male model, but the bumbling boy who just wants to take her sailing. The dad sees both his daughters off to prom and learns to let go a little. Even the best friends (Michael and Mandella, the latter of whom is played by '90s teen movie staple Susan May Pratt) find nerd-love in period garb, thanks to a really sweet subplot.

  • For my part, I've never understood why some of the hardcore Shakespeare fans loathe re-interpretations. No, they don't always work: I once saw a production of Romeo and Juliet set in some sort of Victorian/Wild West hybrid. Ugh. Several years later, I saw another production of Romeo and Juliet set in a trailer-trash small town. And it was terrific. Shakespeare was all about experimenting and breaking rules--that's one of the reasons why he's so revered and celebrated today. To paraphrase, "Well-behaved playwrights rarely make history." I didn't know the guy, plus he's dead, so I can't say whether he'd put his stamp of approval on modernizations--but I'd like to think he'd be cool. Because you know what a good re-interpretation of a classical text does? It gets people excited. Some of them will be inspired to seek out more of the author's work. Others may go a step further and create their own interpretations. That's what makes art so fabulous: it is in a constant state of evolution. And what's more, the story is kept alive for yet another generation to dissect, obsess over, and love. If you don't believe me, listen to the soundtrack of the musical hit Spring Awakening, which ran on Broadway for two years, won the Best New Musical Tony in 2007, and is currently touring the country thanks to a rabid fan following. Spring Awakening is, in fact, based on a nineteenth-century German play. Yup.
I had a revelation while writing this last bullet point: with all my faith in re-interpretations, I guess I should give the TV series a chance. Groan. Okay, I was probably going to watch it anyway. The pilot, at least--I can't promise any more than that. I really do hope, however, that the powers-at-be at ABC Family have taken care with casting, writing, and thinking about how a story with a firm ending will best translate into a thirteen (or more) episode series. Because otherwise, I'm popping in my DVD. Again.


  1. Hey, awesome review. But they really made a TV show out of Uncle Buck? Really? Man!

    Agree that Shakespeare re-interpretations can be cool. I'm debating seeing Tromeo and Juliet this weekend--what are your thoughts on that? Speaking of ones that don't work, in college we got to (and by GOT TO, I mean HAD TO) see some off off off off Broadway version of Antony and Cleopatra with an all female cast that our prof later apologized for making us go see.

    Thanks for the shout out, too! Much obliged.

  2. I've always wanted to see Tromeo and Juliet, and I've heard great things. My ex has actually worked with Lloyd Kaufman--I'll never forget when I worked at a bookstore, seeing the astonished looks on my hipster musician guy coworkers' faces when I mentioned Lloyd Kaufman. Hilarious. I guess girls aren't supposed to know about Troma.

    Let me know what you think!

  3. Hahaha, very fun post!

    You know, they are thinking about a NEW Buffy. WITHOUT JOSS WHEDON'S INVOLVEMENT. This is heresy to most Buffy fans. The movie was a big nothing, Whedon wasn't in charge, but the TV show was sublime!

    I still miss Heath Ledger. :(

  4. As a medium-hardcore Shakespeare fan, I love the reinventions. (Gnomeo and Juliet! How great is that going to be!)

    But I actually fell down the escalator when I saw a mall poster for this show. Luckily, I was not far from the bottom, but still. It horrifies me. Thank you for volunteering for doing the initial viewing and passing on the verdict.

  5. I will do so! Haven't had a chance to see it yet, but hopefully soon.

    As for the girls aren't supposed to like x, people used to stare at me all open mouthed when I told them in high school that I loved Tool. Go figure!

  6. God, I love this movie. Thanks for this review.

  7. Hahaha, Bianca is the typical stupid teenager, I doubt that she can cross the twenties without getting pregnant.