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As parody, 'Pretty' fails to persuade

Please let Evan Rachel Wood age quickly. Please let her start to wrinkle, gray, sag, drive a minivan -- anything that gets this teenager roles that might be half as mature as her talent. Please, because until then her fans will be stuck viewing films like ''Pretty Persuasion."

As with a lot of what Wood has been seen in thus far, ''Pretty Persuasion" isn't so much awful as it is self-conscious, overdone, shallow, and just not up to the level of its star. On TV's ''Once and Again" she was a promising up-and-comer, and in Catherine Hardwicke's ''Thirteen" she at least had meaty drama on her side, even if it was too transparently staged to shock and awe. But in this latest vehicle, directed by Marcos Siega (a graduate of music videos) and written by Skander Halim (''Guest Room"), the goal is mostly comedy, a genre that seldom rewards those who try too hard -- especially teenagers.

Siega and Halim's biting satire does blast a few deserving targets, and their point of view is occasionally savvy enough that comparisons to ''Heathers" and ''Election" aren't totally out of line. But ''Pretty Persuasion" is also undemanding in the way of ''Clueless" or ''Mean Girls," while at the same time it pretends to be as weighty as an ''Elephant" in the social commentary department. As a result, it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be.

For Wood, who plays supremely manipulative 15-year-old minx Kimberly Joyce, there seems to be no way out of the kiddie pool. Kimberly is a student at an exclusive Beverly Hills high school where the usual assortment of elitist behaviors and sexual obsessions are on display. Kimberly's best pal is named Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), her ex-boyfriend (now dating Brittany) is Troy (Stark Sands), and her naive new-girl tailgater is a malleable Muslim named Randa (Adi Schnall). Together, the girls conspire to falsely accuse a lusty teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual assault; the reason for that takes awhile to piece together in this intentionally abrupt and nonlinear cut-and-paste job, but it's ultimately as silly and unsurprising as you'd expect.

Of course, it's all meant to be parody -- the stock characters, the racism, the frequent oral sex -- and we're supposed to be both amused and impressed by its insights. The problem isn't that it's intentionally ridiculous, cruel, and warped (all of which can be the seeds of successful comedy); the problem is it's not especially funny or original. (Sample line: ''Mr. Anderson's kind of weird, especially around girls. We think he's a podiatrist.") It is watchable, however, mainly because of Wood's expert sense of how to render damaged people. That and the hilarious help she gets from fearless James Woods, who goes so over-the-top raunchy playing Kimberly's dad that he makes the rest of the movie -- including Jane Krakowski's ultra-horny lesbian reporter -- seem restrained.

Wood and Woods make a great creative pair, and it would be wonderful to see them costar in something more worthy of their talents. Meantime, may filmmakers allow each of them to age appropriately.

Janice Page can be reached at

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