1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Poison Ivy December 17, 2019
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 works straightforwardly on our bare skin, this film’s Ivy is convolutedly deadly. I could never quite get on board with her evils as she pinballed from vulnerable to authoritatively manipulative to merely delusional.
Not much about her, or what she develops into, makes much sense, or at least doesn’t feel hyper-put-on.
One usually comes into contact with poison ivy after unsuspectingly 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 (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 TV caster 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 has moved into the Coopers’ sprawling cliffside home.
The film soon establishes that whatever spark of genuineness Ivy appeared to possess when we first met her was probably just her being a gifted manipulator doing her thing. Once she ingratiates herself into the Coopers’ world, she works hard to mess it up — something like a parasite who, when you think about it, isn’t that poised to get something in return. (At least not something, when thinking coherently, that will last.) She aspires to drive Sylvie’s mother Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) — agoraphobic, depressed, and bed-ridden from an illness I’m not sure I specifically 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’s doing all this because she’s always wanted the life the Coopers seem to embody, minus the extreme 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 much be thrilled by what the movie has to offer. But in any case “Poison Ivy” is bad even when not taking into account its characterizational deficiencies. 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 bad is fun.
The movie is bankrupt of suspense. And as Ivy becomes progressively wicked, the deficiencies of the screenplay and Barrymore’s performance come to the fore. Better writing and casting would make the unveiling of Ivy’s evil feel organic, Russian dollish. We’d feel duped to think 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 circled around a teenage femme fatale. 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 you barely noticed it even when it was doubtlessly there. When its 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 from 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 miniature set that soon enough you aren’t especially all that interested in the marionettes they’re making do their bidding. C-