No joke is too cruel for Marcos Siega in Pretty Persuasion, another high-school-is-hell movie. Broad comedy is not to be trifled with: pulling out the stops can work, if executed confidently, but Siega occasionally feints at feeling. Once the characters are exposed as racist, Machiavellian, asinine, self-centered, ineffectual, or all of the above—gleefully exposed, I might add—the director's "empathy" becomes another example of the hypocrisy he intends to lay bare.
And yet, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor managed to make their self-centered characters pitiable in Election, the film Siega most desires to replicate. For most of the film, aspiring actress Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) acts with heartless, amoral efficiency to rule her school. Surrounding herself with needy girlfriends and a puppyish boy to do her bidding, the high-IQ Kimberly orchestrates a sexual-harrassment case against her English and drama teacher, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston). Britney (Elisabeth Harnois) and new Arab student Randa (Adi Schnall) are happy to conspire, if only to soak up Kimberly's afterglow.
Kimberly's blithely horrifying attitudes and impassive aggression leads one teacher to call her the devil. In the film's opening minutes, she tells Randa and Britney, "I respect all races, but I'm glad I'm white," then adds, "Barry's technically my boyfriend, only I don't like him," as Barry stands by and takes it. What could cause a girl to be so cruel? Screenwriter Skander Halim futzes around with some reasons: her soldier brother died, and her rich-bitch stepmom (Jaime King) and loudmouth-racist dad (James Woods) are enagaged in a low-scale war.
As for the undeniably sleazy teacher, his technical guilt remains an open question as Pretty Persuasion turns into a courtroom comedy laden with flashbacks (in the last act, the flashbacks become redundant and overlong). The notion of a law teacher who thinks he can defend his friend is good for some laughs, but we mostly get unlikeable caricatures and painfully tasteless humor with the intent to shock. Nothing is less shocking than a movie that's constantly trying to shock—witness Woods, who, let off his leash by Siega, gives one of his least effective performances.
The scattershot satire indicts a media-deadened US culture (Kimberly doesn't say "Oops," she says "Rewind!"), in which sexual power ever resides in the teenage girl (in a scene decorated and scored like Twin Peaks, Selma Blair, as Mrs. Anderson, must dress like a schoolgirl to ignite her husband's fantasies). Furthermore, the wars of adults teach their children to take what they want from those weaker than them. But the film's instructiveness doesn't go much further than a security guard's dog-eat-dog philosophy: "No matter how rich you are, ain't nobody safe." Pretty Persuasion is more bite than bark, but it's all dog.