|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 02 November 1999|
Here’s a question, not really a complaint, except as it relates to the spread of irrationality and hypocrisy in our culture (okay, so it is a complaint): What is the logic in releasing unrated and R-rated versions of a movie on the same DVD? The theory behind putting them out on separate disks is, presumably, that interested persons under the age of 17 can watch the R-rated version with parental supervision (feel free to write in if anyone of your acquaintance knows of instances where this has actually happened). However, apart from students of MPAA thinking, are there really people who are going to watch the R-rated version, thinking, "Yes, I’ve just rented/purchased this film with strong sexual content, but there’s only so strong I can stand for it to be?"
In any event, the ‘Poison Ivy’ disk comes with not only the fairly standard choice between original widescreen and modified full-screen versions, but also between the unrated cut and the R-rated cut. The unrated version is approximately four minutes longer, and leads one to the conclusion that its outlaw status must have had more to do with the fact that the sex scenes in Chapters 14, 17, and 23 involve a character who is a minor – Drew Barrymore’s Ivy – rather than any extraordinary content in the scenes. (If both of the characters were adults, it’s difficult to imagine the footage drawing anything other than an R.)
This is a very long way of saying that, although it certainly moved Barrymore from cute kid to sex symbol, ‘Poison Ivy’ is not sexploitation film its reputation (and sequels) might suggest. It is instead a smart, character-driven suspense drama, told from the point of view of Coop (Sara Gilbert), a lonely, brainy, rich high school student who hides behind woolly brown locks, eyeglasses and sarcasm. Ivy has wavy blonde hair and sports stick-on tattoos of crosses on her thighs that billow as she swings like Tarzan on a rope over a ravine. To Coop, Ivy is almost like a being from some other world, a cause for both envy and adoration. To Ivy, Coop is a chance at a better life. As the two become friends, Ivy wins over Coop’s initially suspicious parents (Tom Skerritt, Cheryl Ladd) by telling each what they want to hear. For Coop’s sick mother Georgie, Ivy is an attentive surrogate daughter who is not embarrassed or threatened by another’s illness; for father Darryl, the newcomer is balm for his aging male ego and a source of increasing temptation. For Coop, Ivy is confidante, rival and possible love interest. Ivy seems on some level to genuinely want to fit into Coop’s disfunctional family, but by the time she’s done manipulating all parties concerned, there may not be any family left.
Barrymore is a dazzler as Ivy, fully up to the chameleon-like demands of the role, convincingly tender or icy, hellraising or wounded as the situation requires. Gilbert is terrific as the glowering, vulnerable Coop, a bundle of quivering nerve endings concealed beneath the exterior of a consummate grouch. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice Leonardo DiCaprio in a tiny cameo.
Director Katt Shea Ruben, who co-wrote the script with Andy Ruben, from a story by Peter Morgan and Melissa Goddard, displays visual flair and does a fine job of jacking up the suspense while keeping the relationship between Coop and Ivy intensely natural and plausible. Female viewers especially will smile and cringe in recognition at the bull’s-eye accuracy with which the filmmakers capture the nature and nuance of the volatile, powerful bond of high school best-friendship. There’s enough drama, humor and insight in the interplay of the two young leads to supply the entire substance of some other film.
However, ‘Poison Ivy’ sets out to be a thriller, so it ultimately veers onto the course of lethal jeopardy. Curiously, this is its least satisfying aspect, perhaps because the filmmakers seem to be unable to make up their minds exactly how much of Ivy’s destructiveness is calculated and how much is spur-of-the-moment. By the climax, Ivy’s actions are running counter to her apparent purposes; it’s hard to fear someone whose agenda is this unclear.
Even so, ‘Poison Ivy’ is often an engrossing, subversive journey. Its bittersweet paean to adolescent attachments aside, the film wittily and credibly targets the sort of terminally screwed-up parent/child dynamics that more sober-minded dramas either ignore or heighten to the point of travesty.