The teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You gets off to a nice peppy start thanks to a burst of "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies under the titles, but the song gets cut off halfway through. The plot suffers the same fate. The first quarter of the film--the exposition and set-up--is a coy but clever update of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Then, just as the juicy battle-of-the-sexes plot should be picking up steam, the movie down shifts, heartbreakingly, into one more routine high school Cinderella variation.
The most popular girl at "Padua High" is Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik). All the boys want to date her, but her fretful ob-gyn father (Larry Miller) has forbidden anything of the kind until Bianca's gorgeous but tempestuous older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) starts dating, which Kat is in no visible hurry to do. A group of hopeful suitors to Bianca engage a studly, smoldering fellow student named Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), who's reputed to have a criminal past, to clear a path to their beloved by wooing Kat, for a sizable fee per date.
Right down to the openly mercenary initial motive behind the hero's courtship, this is pretty faithful to Shakespeare. Early on, there's even a whisper of the actual text, when the film's equivalent of the amorous Lucentio, played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt, remarks, "I burn, I pine, I perish," while mooning over the unattainable Bianca.
Later, a young English teacher (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) tells his class that "Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he knew his stuff." It would seem so--ever since it was written, The Taming of the Shrew has remained one of the most popular of English-language comedies. But over the last century it has also become a problematic work, because it presents as given certain sexist assumptions of its period about marital authority. It rubs our sense of political correctness the wrong way, yet it's too theatrically strong--it plays too well--to allow it to drop out of the repertory.
To suggest that the play's sexual politics are still the source of the pleasure it gives, that what we enjoy in it is seeing a headstrong woman put in her place, is ridiculous. Indeed, that probably wasn't even what delighted the play's original audiences back when the particular white guy who wrote it was still alive. Among the author's sources for the story had been "jest ballads" that recommended brutally beating and torturing shrewish wives into submission. But Shakespeare's Petruchio never raises a hand, or even his voice, to Kate the Shrew (at one point she slaps him, and he replies, "I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again"). Instead, Petruchio employs reverse psychology to trick his spirited but unhappy bride--with whom he is very much infatuated--into embracing the social enfranchisement to which she is entitled.
That's what makes the idea of a 20th-century Taming so challenging, and so potentially worthwhile. To do this story out of the context of arranged marriages and dowries and the demand of wifely obedience could free the funny, touching romance at the heart of the material--about one free spirit teaching another how to get along in a structured society--from the weight of dated political baggage it doesn't deserve.
To do a modern Taming properly might well require the jettisoning of some, even most, of the specific parallels to Shakespeare's plot. There is, after all, no dramatic logic by which a 20th-century American father's insistence on linking the social life of one daughter to that of another can be made convincing--only Larry Miller's likably wacky acting sells it here. And the gap in dramatic urgency between the question of who you're going to marry and the question of who's taking you to the prom is likewise unbridgeable, though perhaps no such gap exists in the minds of the teen audience at which this film is aimed.
In any case, laborious mechanical fidelity to Shakespeare may not have been essential, or even desirable, to making the project work. Having a pair of rich, rowdy central characters, cosmically fated to be lovers, certainly was. A modern Kate the Shrew should have a devastating verbal wit, like the title character in the marvelous MTV cartoon Daria, plus a wariness and a wild temper. A modern Petruchio should be a nutty, indomitable wiseass; something, perhaps, like Steve Zahn in That Thing You Do! In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kat Stratford and Patrick Verona are nothing more than two sweet, considerate, very pretty kids going through a vaguely defiant phase--"rebellious" would be far too strong a word.
Sadly, Stiles and Ledger get no help from the script, by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. The writers seem more concerned with keeping Kat and Pat inoffensive than with making them interesting. Though everyone in the film keeps insisting that these two are hell-raisers, we never see either of them do anything very outrageous, and we quickly cease to believe that either of these intelligent lookers would lack for friends or romantic prospects in real life.
As a result of these thin characterizations, our attention gravitates to the supporting players, who are much livelier. Levitt has been a funny actor since he was a little kid, and Oleynik makes Bianca less vapid than she's supposed to be. Levitt's sidekick--the parallel to Shakespeare's resourceful Tranio--is the terrific David Krumholtz, who, as a dour North Pole elf, added the only hipness to The Santa Clause.
The best performance, however, is by Allison Janney as Ms. Perky, a guidance counselor who dispenses chipper, perfunctory advice as quickly as she can, so that she can get back to work on her torrid romance novel. 10 Things I Hate About You could use a lot more of Ms. Perky--there's no equivalent to her in Taming, but in terms of comic scale, she's the most Shakespearean character in the film.
Ms. Perky's disappearance after a half-hour is symptomatic of the movie's timidity. Lutz, Smith and director Gil Junger keep establishing characters and gags that have no real payoff (the film may have been heavily edited). At the beginning, for instance, Krumholtz takes Levitt, who's a new kid, on a sociological tour of the school's various cliques, just like similar scenes in Clueless and Disturbing Behavior, among other films. It's becoming an obligatory element in teen comedy. But here, the interaction of those cliques has no major significance in the story. We're set up to expect a meatier film than we get.
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To be sure, there are far less agreeable 90-minute stretches to be had at the multiplexes currently than 10 Things. Junger, whose feature debut this is--he's best known for the famous "coming out" episode of TV's Ellen--uses the Pacific Northwest locations well, and passages of the bantering dialogue are hilariously sharp. During these scenes, Junger is able to get good work from most of his attractive cast. 10 Things is much more enjoyable than, say, She's All That, but that's the sort of faint praise it will have to settle for. It raises an intriguing premise, but in the end, it's closer to She's All That than to Shakespeare.
10 Things I Hate About You
Directed by Gil Junger; with Julia Stiles, Allison Janney and David Krumholtz.