Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 82 of 100
Kicking off in the mid-90s with ‘Clueless’, there was a short-lived trend for literary adaptations updated to a modern high-school setting (‘Clueless’ was based on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’). The whole thing fizzled out in 2001 with ‘O’, an oh-so-serious attempt at ‘Othello’ centred around a high school basketball team. (Although I guess you could argue Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’, not a specific adaptation but an homage to the tradition of hard-boiled private eye fiction, as the last – and certainly the best – entry in the cycle.)
‘10 Things I Hate About You’, made in 1999, updates Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ although its title and its pivotal (if cringingly embarrassing) scene refer to an inversion of Sonnet 141. The basic set-up is: Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the new kid at Padua High School, immediately smitten with Ivy League princess Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) despite his new buddy Michael (David Krumholtz)’s advice that he doesn’t stand a chance. Cameron and Bianca seem to hit it off, but there are two obstacles: one is narcissistic jock Joey (Andrew Keegan), keen on bedding Bianca himself, and the other is Bianca’s father Walter (Larry Miller). You see, Walt’s a gynaecologist (“up to my elbows in placenta all day long”) and many of his clients are teenage girls. Hence he’s a teensy-weensy bit over-protective.
Walter: This morning I delivered a set of twins to a fifteen year old girl. You know what she said to me?
Bianca: “I’m a crack whore who should have made my skeazy boyfriend wear a condom”?
Walter: Close, but no. She said “I should have listened to my father”.
Bianca: She did not.
Walter: Well, that’s what she would have said if she hadn’t been so doped up.
Walter doesn’t worry so much about his elder daughter Kat (Julia Stiles), mainly because she’s a proto-feminist agitator more concerned with reading Sylvia Plath, arguing the toss with teachers and basically encapsulating herself in the kind of don’t-fuck-with-me vibe that could easily create seismic activity. As evidenced by Kat’s little chat with school counsellor Ms Perky (a scene-stealing Allison Janney):
Ms Perky: I hear you were terrorizing Mr Morgan’s class again.
Kat: Expressing my opinion is not a terrorist action.
Ms Perky: The way you expressed your opinion to Bobby Ridgeway? By the way, his testicle retrieval operation went quite well in case you’re interested.
Kat: I still maintain that he kicked himself in the balls.
Given Kat’s least-likely-to status in the dating game (let alone the possibility of getting knocked up), Walter declares that Bianca can only start dating when Kat does. Thus it is that Cameron and Michael set out to find someone brave or foolhardy enough to put the moves on Kat. When all of their potential candidates bottle out (one of them citing that he’d only date Kat “if we were the last two people on earth and there were no sheep left”), they set their sights on mysterious bad-boy and downright anti-social type Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) only to realise they going to have to pay him. So they manipulate Joey, exploiting his designs on Bianca, into ponying up the moolah.
‘10 Things I Hate About You’ remains arguably more faithful to its source material than ‘Clueless’ or ‘O’, navigating a maze of narrative contrivances thanks to an irreverent script and good performances from its cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger both demonstrate why they later graduated to working for Christopher Nolan, Julia Stiles does sparky and attitudinous like no-one else (seriously, you wouldn’t spill her pint), Larisa Oleynik pulls off an amusing combination of girl-next-door and ditzy blonde, Larry Miller is a hoot (particularly when he tries to communicate with Bianca in what he imagines his her argot: “I'm down, I've got the 411, and you are not going out and getting jiggy with some boy, I don't care how dope his ride is”) and Allison Janney all but waltzes off with the film as the school counselor who really can’t be bothered with the kids and just wants to finish writing her erotic novel.
For the most part, the humour is a tad saltier than your average high school comedy, pace the scene where Ms Perky berates Patrick for exposing himself in the cafeteria. He responds that he was only “joking with the lunch lady. It was a bratwurst.” Ms Perky coolly arches an eyelid: “A bratwurst. Aren’t we the optimist?”
Unfortunately, things ebb towards the end. Patrick turns out to be a mostly okay dude, Kat bonds with her sister, Walter comes through for his daughters, etc, etc, ad nausem. ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ falls victim to too many formulaic and utterly predictable moments in its third act; and while it remains a cut above the likes of ‘A Cinderella Story’ or ‘Wild Child’, this late-in-the-game quality control dip means that it doesn’t quite get the same grades as ‘Heathers’ or ‘Mean Girls’ in the all-too-small pantheon of genuinely good high school movies.