Shakespeare in puppy love

Noble to the core, these modern teenagers spice up an age-old romantic fantasy

A couple of years or so ago, Jane Austen suddenly rose from classical obscurity to become the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood. Now, it is Shakespeare himself who has become the magic name to drop. There are straight-up productions of his plays in the works--a star-studded version of A Midsummer's Night Dream is scheduled for release in May--but the creators of the endearing, energetic new film Ten Things I Hate About You have chosen a less risky approach. As the inspiration for their script, first-time screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith have followed the tinplate forged by Amy Heckerling for her transposition of Jane Austen's Emma into the 1995 hit Clueless. And while comparisons to that earlier, splashier film are inevitable, there are at least 10 things about this one that are better.

One of them is the inspired way director Gil Junger and his collaborators have played off the original. In Ten Things I Hate About You, Lutz and Smith have used The Taming of the Shrew as their source, substituting the rich suburbs of Seattle, Washington, for 14th-century Verona, Italy. What they have retained from the original, though, is the air of swooning romanticism. The story begins when Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a newly arrived sophomore who is being given a tour of Padua High School by his friend Michael (David Krunholtz), first lays eyes on Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and falls madly in love with her. Naturally, Cameron wants to go out with this comely fellow student, but there is a slight problem for anyone who would like to ask Bianca out on a date. By proclamation of her hilariously nervous and overprotective father (Larry Miller), Bianca cannot date until her older sister, Katarina (Julia Stiles) dates. And if Kat has anything to do with it, that won't be anytime soon. While everything about Bianca is gentle and sweet, everything about Katarina is odious and rough. She hates boys and hates the thought of dating even more. So she terrorizes every unwitting lad who comes within shouting distance of her.

The setup, of course, belongs to Shakespeare, but Junger, making his feature debut here, can be credited for using everything the bard has given him to his very best advantage. Junger received most of his directing experience in television, specifically on situation comedies. (He directed the famous coming-out episode of Ellen.) And where his skill shows itself most is in the way he keeps the various crisscrossing story lines straight.

He also has a considerable talent for getting confident performances out of his mostly inexperienced teenage cast. As Cameron, Gordon-Levitt is enormously winning as the character who--with considerable assistance from his geeky friend Michael--keeps pushing the story forward with his behind-the-scenes plotting. The one person in school who isn't terrified by Kat is Patrick (the Australia-born Heath Ledger), the school's notorious juvenile delinquent, who agrees to ask Kat out on a date only if he is paid for his trouble.

Because none of the characters are exactly as they seem, Kat is not nearly so unapproachable, and Patrick not nearly so tough. After growling at one another through a few scenes in the classic screwball style, the inevitable transformation takes place and the obstacles to love fall away, not just for Patrick and Kat but for Cameron and Bianca as well. Even Michael is rewarded for his labors on love's behalf. Though it has a classical parentage, Ten Things That I Hate About You is a small-scaled, slight undertaking, but its pleasures are unexpectedly rich. It has become a habit in our movies to portray the exploits of high school age characters as shocking and depraved. Ten Things I Hate About You allows its teenagers their innocence and something that is even rarer these days--something like nobility.

Ten Things I Hate About You.
Directed by Gil Junger, written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith. Starring Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Larisa Oleynik. Now playing.

 
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