Pretty Persuasion

Starring Evan Rachel Wood and James Woods. Rated 18A. Opens Friday, October 14, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

Here's a film that wants to sit at the same lunch table as Mean Girls, Election, and Heathers but instead it's just a wannabe. What's worse is that, as Pretty Persuasion tries to pull off a biting black comedy about social mores at a Bel Air private school, it turns ugly.

First-time director Marcos Siega aims to shock with his deadpan brand of political incorrectness, to varying effects-none of which are laughs. Everything is too contrived to hit the right tone of satire. It's just not that funny watching ruthless teen ice queen Kimberly (Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood) expose her new best friend, veiled Arab émigré Randa (Adi Schnall), to video footage of a Silicone Valley three-way. Or hearing her answer all of her stepmother's questions with the standard "Do you fuck dogs?" Or having to see James Woods, playing her father, spout off about Jews while spitting moo shu pork all over the dinner table or, God help us, get caught pulling pud to a call line.

Pretty Persuasion seems to want to say something about rich people and racism. Bigotry certainly stinks up every scene Kimberly is in, whether she's getting kicked out of the lead role of Anne Frank for saying something anti-Semitic or explaining to Randa why she's happy she's white. But with wide-eyed Randa in her headscarf clearly being played for laughs, and just about every other ethnic group attacked with such gusto, the message is uncomfortably mixed.

This smug little indie also attempts to lampoon the sexual ruthlessness of the Girls Gone Wild generation. Kimberly will sleep with anyone to get what she wants (think Election's Tracy Flick as a nymphomaniac). She and her two gal pals cook up a plan to frame her English teacher (Ron Livingston) for sexual molestation, and the remainder of the film bogs down in courtroom antics and a clichéd media frenzy.

Amid all the nastiness, there's one scene that just about gets it right. Livingston's teacher, who's no saint either, hands his wife (Selma Blair) a birthday present. Her mix of shock and elation that he's actually bought something this year moves to polite discomfort when she removes the wrapping paper: the gift is a skirt that looks disturbingly close to the ones the girls at his school wear as part of their uniforms. Watching him coax her to try it on, and seeing two pros subtly work the scene, reminds you that great satire doesn't have to show off. The rest of Pretty Persuasion is crude kid's stuff by comparison.