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'Ten Things,' The Latest Ballyhoo For The Bard, Offers An Enjoyable Twist On The Misogynistic Classic.

By James DiGiovanna

APRIL 12, 1999:  ONE THING BILL Shakespeare was great at was writing teen films...Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, that new Romeo and Juliet, and now 10 Things I Hate About You, which he adapted from his 1597 play The Taming of The Shrew.

10 Things, on top of having one of the worst film titles since The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, is also one of the best Shakespeare films of the last several weeks.

Why? Well, partly because it takes the Bard's most sexist comedy and turns it into a post-feminist bash, partly because it stars the soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Julia Stiles, and partly just because there's not much else at the theater this week.

10 Things also manages something that Taming of the Shrew didn't, which is that it's consistently funny for modern audiences. The scripting is zippy and further enlivened by a sensibility for the complexities of teenage life that most teen films completely lack.

While the story is fairly standard teen film fare--boy is secretly paid to date girl, and winds up falling in love with her--writer Karen McCullah Lutz (who collaborated with Shakespeare on this one) understands that most of the teen film clichés simply don't apply in the real world.

The film starts with new kid Cameron (3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being shown around Seattle's Padua High School (fans of the Bard will enjoy this and the many other references to the original play) by nerdboy Michael. Instead of showing Cameron a school simplistically divided into "in" and "out" crowds, as in most teen films, Michael introduces Cameron to a more complex and realistic social milieu. They weave through a multitude of cliques, including ska lovers in narrow pants and pork-pie hats, white Rastas with home-made dreadlocks, future business-geeks in ugly suits, cowboy kids with Wrangler butts, and moody coffee addicts jonesing for their morning fix.

However, this is still a teen film: as the new kid, Cameron is something of an outsider, and therefore must fall for most-popular-girl Bianca. Bianca, unfortunately, cannot date until her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) starts dating. This is unlikely, because, this being a '90s teen film, Kat is The Angry, Girl-Power Rebel Teen (see The Rage: Carrie 2, She's All That and the upcoming Ghost World), and she thinks that all the boys at her local high school are troglodytes.

Oddly, Stiles, who really tears up the screen here as Kat (and also in last year's Wicked, which screens at the Arizona International Film Festival next week) is also set to appear later this year in O, a teen-film updating of Othello.

Anyway, her dream is to get as far away from Seattle as possible by heading to the East Coast and going to Sarah Lawrence College. I've got news for her: I spent a semester at Sarah Lawrence College, and the few boys there who weren't gay were, in fact, troglodytes. Of course, that wouldn't matter for Kat since the whole point of going to Sarah Lawrence College is to go on the four-year lesbian program, but that's beside the point.

As you would expect, Cameron isn't the only one who wants to get with Bianca. In fact, pretty much everyone wants to get with Bianca, and everyone thinks Kat is some kind of psycho-bitch because she reads Sylvia Plath and spouts lots of overprivileged-white-girl-feminist stuff and puts on a punk-rock scowl before returning to her suburban mansion overlooking Puget Sound.

There, her uptight OB/GYN dad, played by Larry Miller at his most hilarious, uses her anti-social behavior as an excuse to keep his young daughters from winding up on the wrong side of the stirrups in his office. His years of delivering teen crack-babies have convinced him that all dating is bad, and that holding hands while rollerblading will no doubt lead to the only human condition commonly delineated into trimesters. He lays down what he thinks is a no-fail rule to keep Bianca's pants buttoned: she may not date until Kat does.

Thus, to date Bianca, Cameron must get Kat a date. To do this, he convinces one of Bianca's other suitors, boy model Joey, to pay the school's outlaw, Patrick Verona (get it?) to try and whip Kat into shape...or at least to take her to the movies.

The plot is then fairly standard: Patrick falls in love with Kat, she falls in love with him, and we wait in dread for the financial basis of their relationship to be exposed so she can run off crying and he can try to win her back. Blah blah blah.

Still, 10 Things is pretty successful and has a lot going for it. It's way smarter than most recent teen films, much funnier, and it balances out Kat's shallow teenage pretensions to feminism with a funny and pointed speech by her English teacher (played sharply by David Leisure), who, being black, figures he's got more right to feel oppressed than beautiful, wealthy Kat.

Since the film leaves the underlying feminist principles intact, it's much preferable to the anti-feminist Pygmalion message of She's All That. 10 Things never pretends that its protagonist is an ugly girl who just needs a make-over and a date with a football star to get her past her Betty Friedan stage. Rather, it explains and validates Kat's political views through actual encounters with unpleasant patriarchal conditions, but doesn't elevate them beyond the level of ill-thought out teenage versions of very real political positions. And there's only one Australian in the entire film.

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