You're Just Too Good to be True
19 years ago, 10 Things I Hate About You debuted in theaters and to this day it is still a perfect teen movie.
That's not to be confused with it being an actual perfect movie -- this is no Jaws, The Godfather, or Toy Story -- nor is it indie film festival art or a Marvel Studios cash printing block buster.
But it also doesn't have to be any of those things because if it had tried to be then it wouldn't have ended up being the -- with all due respect to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet -- best teen romcom of the 1990's.
The reasons for its greatness range from sophisticated to simple, objective to personal - as movie opinions always do - but since the film is now legally allowed to drink everywhere in Canada, there couldn't be a more perfect time to explore some of them.
First and perhaps most absurdly, the film's source material was loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. In the play, Shakespeare tells the tale of Katherina, a headstrong and opinionated woman who must be tamed by her prospective husband, Petruchio, before they can live happily ever after.
For this film, Katherina is renamed to Kat Stratford -- whose surname happens to be the birth and resting place of Shakespeare -- and Petruchio is renamed to Patrick Verona -- whose surname happens to be the birthplace of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew -- but the premise and progression of 10 Things I Hate About You is similar to that of the play.
Kat (played by Julia Stiles) and her younger sister, Bianca (played by Larisa Oleynik), have an overprotective father who has a rule that states neither of them are allowed to date until they're in college. After predictable and justified protesting from Bianca, he amends that rule to Bianca not being allowed to date until Kat dates - presumably because Kat was the 1990's movie version of the Pussycat Dolls' I Don't Need A Man if that song had actual feminist values and self-respect.
Enter Cameron (played by Joesph Gordon-Levitt). Cameron wants nothing more in the world than to date Bianca. The movie's villain, Joey Donner (played by Andrew Keegan), wants nothing more in the world than to share space with Bianca.
Cameron, being the smart and sympathetic nerd we are supposed to root for that he is, devises a plan to leverage Donner's lust and convinces him to pay the school's resident bad-ass-who-looks-way-too-old-to-be-in-high-school, Patrick (played by Heath Ledger) to date Kat so that Bianca would then also be allowed to date and Cameron can swoop in and everyone can live happily ever after -- except Bianca and Kat's dad who founded said tyrannical rule in the first place.
It's all very complicated in the way that real high school is very complicated -- which is to say that it is more complex than it needs to be while you're looking at it head on and far simpler than you ever thought it was while looking back at it.
Katherina becoming Kat and Petruchio becoming Patrick is somewhere just to the left or right of the thin line separating laziness and creative genius, but the surnames being nods to Shakespeare more than makes up for any perceivable lack of effort or ingenuity.
Most importantly though, the lack of naming imagination doesn't matter when both those roles were filled as well as any role has ever been filled in a teenage movie.
And as much as anything else, casting like that is what this film absolutely nailed.
It gifted the world the big screen debuts of Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Hollywood was a better place because each of those humans were a part of it.
But as movies age, perhaps the most necessary quality for them to remain engaging, enjoyable, and re-watchable are the individual scenes within them and the standalone ways in which they're captivating. There are entire podcasts dedicated to the idea.
It's why Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise and telling him that he can't handle the truth in A Few Good Men will always be worth watching when it's on T.V.
It's why Bruce Willis climbing through the ventilation system at Nakatomi Plaza is still fun enough for Die Hard to be a movie that people watch on Christmas.
It's why the alien bursting out of John Hurt's body in Alien is still gross and great and something to look forward to every time it's on even though the franchise is on its sixth film and the original is creeping up on its 40th birthday.
There may only be one stretch of two minutes and three seconds in the tight 99 minute run time of 10 Things I Hate About You that approaches the same air space as those scenes -- and we'll get to it soon enough -- but there also isn't a stretch longer than three minutes without a moment that immediately makes your day just a little better simply because you saw it.
Those moments start as soon as the opening credits begin to roll.
Take a look at the first time audiences meet Kat:
Unfortunately the soundtrack hasn't aged nearly as gracefully as Stiles herself -- there aren't very many things that have ever existed or ever will exist that could -- but just look at that snarl. It's like the teenage girl equivalent of Demarcus Cousins glaring at a referee as he decides he's about to go off and drop 30 and 15 on some poor fool.
Then there's this scene where Cameron decides Patrick is the guy who can woo Kat and abolish her father's tyrannical rules:
In the span of 30 seconds, Heath Ledger stabs a dead frog with a knife, lights a cigarette in class, and then literally grabs fire. Has there ever been a better and more bad ass movie teenager who could believably be anywhere between the ages of 18 and 26?
Several scenes later there's a scene in which Cameron first attempts to talk Patrick into dating Kat. Patrick's very reasonable and understandable reaction to this request is to take a drill and bore a hole through a textbook that Cameron is holding at chest level.
It's perfect. And absurd. And also a little alarming that no one decides Patrick should be expelled because of it. But more than anything it's prophetic of Gordon-Levitt's career. Even in his breakout big screen debut, he was the perfect Robin.
Then there's every scene with Andrew Keegan. He plays the film's nominal bad guy, Joey Donner, who may be the best nominal bad guy in any teen movie ever.
Just look at his face.
It's everything you need in a teenage movie bad guy's face. All at once it's both very punchable and very pretty -- not prettier than Ledger but pretty enough that you could be fooled into not hating him if all you did was look at him and he never spoke.
But he does speak. A lot. And each word drips with just the right amount of arrogance, vanity, and thinly veiled overcompensation for him to be a perfect foil for the film.
There's also a scene in which Stiles is dancing drunk on a table at a house party to the Notorious B.I.G's Hypnotize and it is every bit as absurd as it sounds, but it also features better dancing than Stiles' performance in Save The Last Dance which -- as the title implies -- is a movie about actual dancing and not drunk table dancing.
Then there's a scene in which Cameron is in the library reading a textbook and it is the same textbook that Patrick drilled through earlier in the film -- which could be an oversight or could be a scathing commentary on the state of education funding in the United States which means that even this film's mistakes are great.
All those scenes are worth re-watching in their own ways, both big and small, but none of them come close to the the movie's two finest moments. The runner up belongs to Julia Stiles.
This scene is like stepping on a Lego brick if your heart could step on Lego bricks, except it's also worse than that because the pain from stepping on a Lego brick is sharp and awful and short lived. This scene is the kind of pain that lingers.
It gets better the more you know about it.
The sequence was done in one take; Stiles improvised the crying; the poem was a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Sonnet 141.
If every great movie needs an iconic and quotable moment, "but mostly I hate the way I don't hate you, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all," is precisely that.
But somehow it also isn't even the best scene in the film.
Just look at this two minute and three second stretch of pure cinematic art:
Remember the aforementioned movie moments that reach so high they brush the tips of mountains? This is as close as any teen movie ever has ever or will ever come to that.
Heath Ledger is a God damn force of nature.
There are so many parts of this scene that deserve to be appreciated:
There's the way Ledger slides down that pole at the very beginning and makes every human who has ever seen it either wish they could be that or wish they could be with that; there's the way he struts in the kind of way that knows exactly where the line between devil-may-care and disarming is and walks effortless along it; there's his voice which is like what angels should sound like because all angels should have Australian accents; there's the way his lips curl into a half smile while the last notes roll off his tongue as though they were engineered in a smile making factory for the sole purpose of breaking hearts.
Depending on your own sensibilities and social anxieties, the thought of someone belting out a Frank Vallie song to you in front of the world is either deeply romantic or massively unnerving but that's why it's aged so well.
19 years later, no matter who you are, this scene still holds the power to make you feel some kind of way. If you've seen this film there are more parts that will stand out as being special to you for one reason or another -- that's part of it's magic, time hasn't stopped it from having something for everyone.
To be fair, part of that something are its flaws. Take the ending for example.
Heath Ledger's character was caught in a web of lies that involved him being paid to try to date Julia Stiles' character. He then apologized for all of the massively dickish things he did by buying her a guitar that appears in her car through means that are very not clear. Then, after the romcom kiss that's as predictable as a sunrise, there's a band playing on the roof of the school -- which looks like American Hogwartz -- for reasons that are as clear as how the guitar ended up in Stiles' car.
But fuck, look at that smile.
How is anyone supposed to do anything other than smile back at their screen like an idiot after that?
Some actors have a magnetism that can pull even the worst scenes to a place that's not only enjoyable, but that approaches magic.
Ledger was that breed of magician.
More than the re-watchable scenes, more than the perfect casting, more than Stiles' portrayal of a female lead that was 20 years ahead of its time, watching this movie again in 2018 is the most unnecessary reminder that the brightest stars burn out too fast.
Ledger is rightfully remembered for breaking down barriers in Brokeback Mountain and creating the most iconic superhero movie villain of all time in the Joker. But Patrick Verona was Ledger at his most fun -- a natural at his craft just learning the depths of his powers and enjoying every second of it.
Some people can make you believe that flaws don't always pertain to perfection. Ledger was one of them. He made 10 Things I Hate About You perfect despite its flaws because he himself was perfect despite his flaws.
He was too good to be true, and Hollywood will never quite be what it could have been now that he's not in it.