Poison Ivy December 25, 2019
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
oison Ivy (1992) stars Drew Barrymore (just a little past her tabloidish teenage-rebellion years) as the eponymous character — a wrong-side-of-the-tracks private-school girl. Whereas poison ivy the plant works straightforwardly on our bare skin, poison Ivy the character is deadly — and convolutedly so. As I watched her make trouble in the movie, I found myself having a hard time getting on board with her as
she pinballed from melodramatically evil to vulnerable to authoritatively manipulative to merely delusional. Not much about her, or what she develops into, makes much sense, or at a minimum doesn’t feel extremely put-on. Such a singular villain title doesn't suit someone as confusedly written as her.
One usually comes into contact with poison ivy after unwittingly walking through an overgrown patch of it while hiking to a waterfall or some other landmark. Socially, Ivy works a bit like the flora she’s being compared to. Early in the film, she meets a fellow student, sulking Sylvie Cooper (Sara Gilbert), and they quickly become friends after Ivy finds out that Sylvie, pissed off by some opinions broadcasted to the public by her alcoholic newscaster dad, Darryl (Tom Skerritt), recently anonymously called his office and made a bomb threat as a way to take her frustrations out. We can tell that Ivy’s “poison” has begun working on the Coopers when, after she and Sylvie have lived up to the “fast friends” cliché for a few weeks, Ivy moves into the Coopers’ sprawling cliffside mansion. The reasoning behind this, it seems, is nebulous trouble for Ivy at home.
Poison Ivy establishes that whatever spark of genuineness Ivy appeared to possess when we first met her was likely her being a gifted manipulator doing what she's best at. Once she ingratiates herself into the Coopers’ world, she works hard to mess it up — something like a parasite which, when you think about it, isn’t poised to get something in return. (At least not something, when thinking coherently, that will last, or is sensical.) Ivy aspires to drive Sylvie’s mother Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) — agoraphobic, depressed, and bed-ridden from an illness I’m not sure I heard the name of — to suicide. She seeks to seduce Darryl and effectively replace Georgie. As a sort of cherry topping, Ivy also works to get Sylvie’s cherished pet dog to prefer her.
We’re made to infer, based on what the movie’s screenplay, written by Andy Ruben and director Katt Shea, offers us, that Ivy is doing all this because she’s always wanted the life the Coopers seem to embody, minus the dysfunction. But what we can infer still doesn’t provide much of a sound or convincing basis for why Ivy behaves the way she does. And as such it’s difficult to in any way take to what the movie has to offer. In any case, though, Poison Ivy is bad even when not taking into account its deficiencies in characterization. It’s undeveloped as a story of female friendship turned sour, defective as an erotic thriller (the film, preposterously, seems eager to show some forbidden skin on Barrymore’s part, seemingly cool with the perpetuation of a pedophilic fantasy), and even just as a Talented Mr. Ripley-esque potboiler where seeing a bad guy do wrong is fun.
Here there is no suspense or sense. And as Ivy becomes progressively wicked, the shortfalls of the screenplay and Barrymore’s performance get louder. Better writing and casting would make the unveiling of Ivy’s evil feel organic, Russian dollish. We’d feel pleasantly duped, realizing we’d been fooled by her clever machinations, too. But each new dramatic set piece unveiling another part in Ivy’s bad streak is hasty and unnatural — just another contrivance I guess necessary when making a psychological thriller circling around a teenage femme fatale and the ramifications of her sinful behavior. I don’t think Barrymore and Gilbert should have been cast in these roles. Barrymore is too cheery and likable to persuade us that she’s a consummate Machiavellian creep, and Gilbert has a darkness to her that wrongly makes us believe that soon enough, she’ll reveal that she’s the villain and not her friend turned enemy.
While watching Poison Ivy I often thought of Heavenly Creatures (1994), Peter Jackson’s great Australian horror feature about a close female friendship that eventually turned murderous. In that movie, darkness crept in so subtly that we almost preferred not to notice it. When the darkness started to cover up everything, we were shocked but at the same time couldn’t claim that the progression felt in any way like an illogical development in these increasingly fucked-up circumstances. Everything about Poison Ivy, by contrast, is so ponderous that after a while it starts looking like a puppet show where you’re so distracted by the puppeteers exercising their hands and arms above a set that soon enough you aren’t all that interested in the marionettes doing their bidding. C-