And Maybe Even One Day a Tambourine

10 Things I Hate About You

Heath Ledger could sell the hell out of movies. Everyone will acknowledge his great films, the ones that led to him getting a (posthumous) Academy Award -- the Joker in The Dark Knight, and then, before that, playing Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain -- it's his early films that really showed just how far he could sell a film that, otherwise, really needed all the help it could get. Don't get me wrong, 10 Things I Hate About You is a cute movie, and fun in many places. It really comes alive, though, when Ledger in on screen.

Fans of the actor can single out an early work they like -- A Knight's Tale, The Patriot, Ned Kelly -- but for me it's 10 Things that showed how his talent really could work. On its face, the movie is just a bubbly dumb teen comedy based on a William Shakespeare work, The Taming of the Shrew, but Ledger, working with Julia Stiles, is able to that that central "shrew" relationship and make it work on a much better level. The chemistry is natural, and he easily slides into his character without it ever feeling like he was just another teen heartthrob. That, more than any other reason, is why this film works.

Based on The Taming of the Shrew, the film follows two sisters, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and Kat (Julia Stiles). Bianca is the younger of the two and, at first, their father (Larry Miller) won't let either of them date at all... not that Kat wants to anyway. So their dad strikes a deal with them: Bianca can date... when Kat does. That's good news for one of Bianca's interested "suitors", Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He and his friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), devise a plan: they'll get someone else to pay a third party to take Kat out, and then Bianca can go as well. The rich patsy ends up being high school popular boy (and male model), Joey (Andrew Keegan), and he's willing to pony up the cash for a chance at Bianca.

All they need is someone that can "tame the shrew", if you will. Someone brave enough to try and fight past Kat's tough exterior. That's where Patrick (Heath Ledger) rolls in. Patrick has a reputation around school as the resident bad boy, with a ton of rumors and legends going around about his various exploits (he has no liver, he served time in prison, he ate a live duck once), and, with the money dangled in front of him, he takes a chance on Kat. And, as it turns out, he is, in fact, able to warm her heart. He just has to hope that someone... say, Joey, let's it out that Patrick was paid to take our the elder sister, or the whole deal could blow up in everyone's faces.

As with Easy A, which was based on The Scarlet Letter, 10 Things has to adapt a story that would seem to be pretty difficult to apply to a high school setting. The original play is basically about a guy negging and gas-lighting a woman into marrying him, just so the younger sister can also get married. It works, and the "shrew" is completely changed by the end of the story, but considering these more modern times, some liberties had to be taken with the story to make it work.

I will note that the liberties this story took annoyed my mother, who had a doctorate in English, when the film came out, and I'm sure there had to be others who felt the same way. It has the structure of Taming of the Shrew, but it very quickly sets aside many of the more problematic aspects of the story for a sanitized, romantic comedy setup. Guy meets girl, guy and girl fall for each other, guy has to prove himself, girl proves herself back, and then a problem arises that they have to work through. The formula is there, for sure, with all the negging and gas-lighting ironed out.

Frankly, though, I don't mind that. I am more than willing to accept liberties if the film is fun, just like I was willing to accept them in Easy A. And, like Easy A, this film is powered by a really good performance. Ledger is magnetic here, for sure, the charismatic lead that steals the show as soon as he steps on stage. Gorden-Levitt and Stiles and Krumholtz and the rest are great, and they sell their scenes really well, but once Ledger comes in, the whole dynamic of the film changes... for the better. Ledger was irreplaceable.

In that regard, this film shares a bit of history with Clueless. Both of those films made the transition to the small screen eventually, and they both lacked the big stars that made the films worth watching. And don't get me wrong, Patrick on the show was played by Ethan Peck, the actor currently play Spock in the Paramount+ Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. shows, and he's great in that role, but he lacks the right charisma to step into Ledger's shoes. That show went for one season, and 20 episodes, before being unceremoniously canceled, and that feels about right.

There are a lot of good actors in this film, though, and even when Ledger isn't on screen there's still plenty of humor to be had. Larry Miller as the father, and Allison Janney as the high school's guidance counselor milk a solid amount of laughs out of their few scenes (even if it's clear Janney had a lot of extra scenes and material that ended up cut from the final film). And the film also nails the romance, especially in the last act with a powerful performance from Stiles as she reads her poem to Ledger's Patrick. The emotions are real.

But would the film work as well without Ledger in it? I have my doubts. The show proved it was unlikely, and Ledger's rising star (right up until his untimely death) also proves the point. The actor was brilliant and he brings his easy charms to this likable enough movie, helping to make it into a film that's worth watching again and again. Without him, or someone of his caliber, making Patrick into a character you absolutely wanted to watch, this film probably would have come and went with little fanfare at all.

Still, the movie is great, and it is worth watching regularly. It stands up with Clueless, a great adaptation that modernizes and updates the material in just the right way to work within the confines of a high school setting. Considering the source material, that's no mean feat.