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Pretty poison

Pretty Persuasion plays a two-faced game

Pretty Persuasion is a slutty little movie pretending to be an important one.

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It wants to wallow in the trough of American junk culture then tsk-tsks like a holy rolling evangelist when it has you on its hook.

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The success of Alexander Payne seems to have convinced many strapping young lads that they can pull off an Election-style satire with equal finesse. But the relatively green former music video director Marcos Siega (who ends his film with the bold declaration "A Marcos Siega Film," as if his name has become as synonymous with quality and value as Oscar Mayer) is not up to the task.

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Pretty Persuasion is social commentary for the readers of Maxim and Stuff, who can make fun of the randy grotesquerie of the society they live in without sacrificing their neo-Hefner, lad-of-the-manor sense of calling all the shots.

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Siega's film is another in the apparently endless, lesser post-Heathers genre of cinema. On the entertaining, revealing end of that genre lie films like Mean Girls, which manages to wrest empathy and relevance from high school girl politics. On the more crowded butt-end are films like Jawbreaker that take a little too much pleasure in the sight of super-hot barely legal girls having sex and being mean before delivering up a satisfyingly misogynist comeuppance to its anti-heroines in the end.

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Pretty Persuasion's anti-heroine is a pale, whip-smart brunette in the Winona Ryder Heathers mode. Kimberly's (Evan Rachel Wood) exclusive Beverly Hills private school has teachers who are over-attentive to the point of lechery and parents who are disconnected to the point of neglect. While instructing a new Arab student, Randa (Adi Schnall), on the social codes of her school, Kimberly gives us a handy crash course in her Southern California dystopia of promiscuous sex, casual racism, PC-lip service and jaded attitude.

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For fun, Kimberly and her best girlfriend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) eat Twinkies and smoke cigars (the director never met a phallic symbol he didn't like) and watch porn, confessing to each other who has done what in the film's degraded portrait of precociously hard-hearted teens.

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Kimberly's problem, the film instructs, is that she's A) female and thus engineered for deception and malice, and B-) cursed with the unnatural and unholy combination of looks and brains that Siega and screenwriter Skander Halim's worldview fears with an unnatural fury.

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In a manufactured, out-of-left-field plot twist, Kimberly convinces her girlfriends Randa and Brittany to accuse their drama teacher of sexually assaulting them, the preamble to a lengthy courtroom drama that critiques the American thirst for celebrity at any cost.

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Pretty Persuasion thinks it's got its hot little finger on something pulse-like by both including an Arab character responding to American decadence, and by alluding to the Iraq War where Kimberly's half-brother died. At various points, when Halim intends you to think there might be something almost human stirring beneath his scales, he has his characters gaze wistfully at the photo of the fallen Marine. Halim thus shamelessly drags a national tragedy into the fray of this ugly, malevolent film in another attempt to make it feel like relevant social commentary.

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Exhibiting the same kind of bilious sarcasm and random misanthropy that has marked other weak social commentary such as American Beauty (a work of genius in comparison), Pretty Persuasion manages to simultaneously hate and lust after its teen hotties.

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In the 11th hour, Pretty Persuasion tries to cop a relevant, downbeat, socially concerned attitude, but after the previous piggish rutting in kink, who exactly does Siega think he's fooling? It's hard to get on board with Team Siega-Halim's tearful ending when they've done such a good job of making their entire cast — especially teen antagonist Kimberly — subhuman.



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