These three challenges are what makes 10 Things I Hate About You a minor mainstream miracle. I first saw 10 Things years ago when I was an unassuming, casual movie lover, and even now, with almost all 10 years of the movie's existence having passed by, it's wonderful to watch a movie that not only succeeds at all three tasks without breaking a sweat, but also a movie that has held up over said decade, thanks to really sharp performances by one of the best up-and-coming ensemble casts assembled for a film in either genre.
The script for 10 Things was written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, loosely based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (in the same way that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is "loosely based" on The Odyssey). As a 15-year-old guy, the movie's strong feminist message went right over my head (somewhat ironic given the controversy about The Taming of the Shrew being misogynistic), but watching it today, I think that subtlety is a testament to how well the characters are written. Kat (Julia Stiles) may read The Feminine Mystique and Sylvia Plath, but unlike so many other romantic comedies, the film remembers that she also wants to be in a band, has a picture of Jared Leto somewhere, and is a surprisingly skilled drunk dancer. Kat's character, and many of the characters in the film, are treated like actual human beings, with time taken to illustrate multiple facets of their life and personalities beyond bullet-point likes and dislikes on a grade-school icebreaker worksheet.
The plot concerns Kat and her sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), who is apparently the hottest girl at Padua High. The girls' father (Larry Miller), an obstetrician, has a ban on dating, but at Bianca's insistence, he loosens his hold on her slightly with a modified rule: Bianca can date when Kat does. Bianca has two potential suitors: new kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or tube sock and underwear model Joey (Andrew Keegan). Cameron and his school tour guide Michael (David Krumholtz) hatch a plan: find someone with enough backbone to court Kat and convince Joey to pay the guy off for his efforts, with the pretense that all Cameron and Michael want is a little "cool by association" popularity and Joey will get Bianca. That someone turns out to be Patrick (Heath Ledger), who may or may not have eaten a whole duck (except the beak and feet) and set a state trooper on fire.
It's a small level of difference, and it won't be enough for some people, but unlike films such as She's All That, the plot never feels like a burden on 10 Things I Hate About You, which is more interested in the interactions of the movie's characters than it is with anything else, and with an expansive central cast (there are ten key characters among the lead and supporting roles), one of Junger's strongest contributions to the movie is the deft way these roles are juggled. It's one thing to have great chemistry between Ledger and Stiles, but the movie creates good scenes between, say, Ledger and Keegan, or Ledger, Gordon-Levitt and Krumholtz as well. The movie knows when not to force a connection, too: Ledger and Oleynik are only in one or two shots together in the entire movie, and never share a single line of dialogue.
Every one of these performances is remarkably charming. In retrospect, they actually don't do that much to make the character of Patrick seem intimidating, so maybe it's not such a grand surprise when he turns out to be a nice guy, but it's still wonderful to watch the scenes between Stiles and Ledger at a crowded party (it takes faith to fall with the possibility that your co-star won't be able to catch you), and in pedalboats on Puget Sound or in the following scene playing paintball. Really, Ledger has the easy job: Stiles' role has many more emotional peaks and valleys to navigate. Personally, I'm partial to Krumholtz's comedic relief: he's been funny in several movies and TV shows I've seen him in, but here he really gets to go all out (my favorite line: "Don't touch anything. You'll get hepatitis."). Larisa Oleynik also successfully balances her character's shallow side with the smart one, sharing several great sister-to-sister bonding moments with Stiles and nailing a particularly satisfying moment in the third act. Wherever you are, Larisa: make more films. Last, but not least, special mention has to go to supporting cast members Allison Janney and Larry Miller, who are both very, very funny with roles that might have otherwise been ignored.
Another thing that went over my head when I was younger is how much the movie gets away with. I don't think I quite agree that the film would have been given an R (I feel like achieving an R rating and not qualifying for a PG-13 have to be two different scenarios), but no particular comment is made on scenes of teen drinking and talk about sex, the fact that several characters smoke, or a bit where Joey draws a penis Michael's face. Frankly, I have to imagine the MPAA was just plain uninformed on a few counts (I doubt they truly understood the meaning of "spank bank"), but it seems like someone today would complain about these things. It's all about tone, and 10 Things is an earnest, positive experience on all fronts.
In the third act, the film really gets into a groove, getting better with each passing minute. In the second-to-last scene, Kat delivers the poem that gives the movie its title, and even today, it's a surprisingly effective, heartbreaking scene for a teen romantic studio comedy, and yet it feels so natural, so easy and right that the movie has arrived at this moment. It even keeps its wits about it during the final scene, throwing in a couple of lines to wink at the sweetness of it all. It's hard to believe that these same writers would later write and produce a movie like The Ugly Truth, a shockingly unfunny, moronic, honesty-free experience that repeatedly and insistently dives, almost purposefully, into every trap 10 Things I Hate About You manages to avoid. It only reinforces that this movie is a genuine minor classic, maneuvering a minefield of teen angst and true love to hit all the right feel-good buttons without any blatant "movie" manipulation. And for that, I don't hate it, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
The Video and Audio
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is pretty solid, even if it doesn't leap out at the viewer like the color of the transfer. Being a movie aimed at teenagers, the soundtrack for 10 Things is packed to the brim with all sorts of hip music, primarily that of the band Letters to Cleo (members of which appear three separate times during the film) and Save Ferris (the band playing at the prom), all of which is crisp and clear. There are also plenty of good surround opportunities provided by the film, including a packed party, a biker bar, a busy nightclub and the aforementioned prom, all of which contain some effective directional activity. French 5.1, Spanish 2.0, English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The other extra is an audio commentary by Smith and McCullah Lutz and actors Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Larisa Oleynik and Susan May Pratt. It's much more entertaining than the featurette, since all of the participants are in the same room and seem to have a great love for the movie (although it is a shame that Stiles and Gordon-Levitt are no-shows). This is mainly a commentary about the experience; all of these people reminsice about the fun they had making the movie rather than production information, so those looking for a technical track are out of luck. Topics include shooting in the Seattle-Tacoma area (where I live!), the material that might qualify for an R-rating today, what the cast did in their time off-set, and, of course, what it was like to work with Ledger and their memories of him. All in all, a solid extra, although I feel almost positive that two large chunks of discussion were deleted during the scene in the biker bar (relating to Oleynik and Gordon-Levitt's time on "3rd Rock From the Sun"), and the conversation drops off a little between the second and third acts of the movie.
Theatrical trailers for When in Rome, Extract and abc family's awful-looking TV version of "10 Things I Hate About You" play before the menu, and of course, Disc 2 is a Digital Copy of the film, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media Player. Finally, one last weird but potentially relevant note about the bonus features: the f-bomb is censored a couple times at the beginning of the audio commentary, although pot and masturbation references remain intact, while the word "blowjob" and talk of ménage à trois pop up in the featurette (both of the latter from Allison Janney...hmmm).