“Heinous bitch is the term used most often”
Although a somewhat recent encounter with Kiss Me Kate firmly placed the musical on the top of my The Taming of the Shrew adaptation list, I can’t deny the appeal—nostalgic or otherwise—of 10 Things I Hate About You. Directed by Gil Junger and written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith with their fair share of nods to The Bard, this romantic comedy plays with clique culture to intertwine love’s many trysts inside the halls of Padua High. Possessing a fun streak of physical comedy with absurdly heightened situations, the teenage antics along the road towards prom entertain while we await the inevitable fallout of a crassly hatched plan to couple Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) off so younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) can test the open market of horny suitors clamoring for her attention.
Ushered in by the socially floundering Micheal (David Krumholtz)—who was just booted from the Future MBAs table—as he takes new student Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) around school, we’re quickly made aware of the dynamics at play. Vain jocks like Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan) effortlessly pout and flirt; vapid underclass girls like Bianca and Chastity (Gabrielle Union) ponder why ‘whelmed’ isn’t a word; and the troubled souls of Kat and Aussie bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) create hostility through unfiltered opinions and ambivalent attitudes. The kids play their stereotypes broadly as teachers caricature hip, laissez faire authority practices, both meshing together nicely for a quick-witted tempo of dialogue that could lazily be called a contemporary iambic pentameter. Between Allison Janney‘s Ms. Perky and Daryl Mitchell‘s scene-stealing Mr. Morgan, the adults definitely shine in the periphery during their abbreviated screentime.
It’s the widely known declaration of Dr. Stratford (Larry Miller) about his daughters not being allowed to date until graduation that serves as the film’s premise. After a bit of pleading, a stroke of genius hits this over-protective father to take the rule even further. Knowing how uninterested Kat is in boys, an amendment is formed that stipulates Bianca may only go out if her sister does first. Smitten with love at first sight, it soon becomes Cameron’s quest to make it happen. Forming an unlikely alliance with Joey—who also hopes to win Bianca for less wholesome reasons—he must find someone willing to infiltrate Kat’s highly refined defenses. Seeing Verona as the best candidate, Cameron and Michael dupe Joey into forking over a hefty bribe with the thought he’s freeing the perky teen from spinsterhood for himself.
The ruse begins as our two head cases unsurprisingly discover true affection through their ‘more than meets the eye’ personas. But whether they fall for each other or not, the unseemly impetus to their relationship will always loom until exposed. Before then, though, we get to watch the fun roller coaster ride two kids firmly residing on the unpaved road of originality are wont to take. He feigns interest in female-fronted rock bands, courageously embarrassing himself by serenading her with a marching band backing him up; she softens to share why she became who she is, finding a latent free spirit willing to flash a teacher so he may sneak out of detention during the distraction. Their apparently permanent scowls miraculously remember muscles necessary to smile and both proclaim the other far removed from their projected fearsome façades—debunking salacious rumors along the way.
Laughs ensue around the new couple through the interactions of teens who wouldn’t normally interact. Keegan is a riot as the self-absorbed Joey; Krumholtz fantastically self-deprecates as he willingly throws himself on the sword of ‘coolness’ as though popularity holds a grudge; and Susan May Pratt‘s Mandella adds a nice halfway point of femininity between the sexualized baby doll of Oleynik and the über-butch Stiles exudes before her thaw. The requisite kegger, overwrought revelations at prom, and gym class antics are included to appeal to everyone’s jaded memories of high school as cliché rules the day. We’ve all had a Mr. Morgan for a teacher, relishing each opportunity for his too smart and under paid cynicism to be unleashed as well as the over-protective parent dictating rules through dryly-sarcastic humor only he/she finds funny.
And while Gordon-Levitt is enjoyable as the young, wholesome kid one social floor away from popularity, his puppy love for Oleynik plays second fiddle to Ledger and Stiles’ courtship. We see the turmoil behind their anger and the compassionate souls hidden under thick skins, enjoying the bitingly witty banter and gradual friendship forged as a result. Early roles after television work—like Gordon-Levitt also—these two show signs of the success they’d find later despite ensnared within 10 Things I Hate About You‘s rather slight tween romantic comedy. They help the power of Shakespeare’s themes transcend the vehicle through three-dimensional performances made more so by the cartoonish characters surrounding them. This dynamic allows the film to reach both genders, giving the contrived fantasy of true love and the quasi-vulgar yet highly entertaining comedy of gawky kids trying to survive adolescence.