”Is this some kind of sick joke?” asks a character in “Gossip,” cleverly getting the jump on contemptuous critics. The film revels in the same stupefying impression of college-age scurviness manifested in “The Skulls,” which also has Joshua Jackson of “Dawson’s Creek” in the cast.
He has become an instant bad-luck charm this season while dabbling in features.
To be fair, Mr. Jackson plays a minor character in “Gossip,” a sometimes ritzy but essentially brain-dead variation on the mostly clever and amusing update of “Dangerous Liaisons” that was titled “Cruel Intentions.”
James Marsden, manipulating a smile as dazzling as Tom Cruise’s for sneaky effects, is cast as the resident cruel one, a journalism major on an unnamed campus that appears to share Greenwich Village with New York University.
Called Derrick Webb, this grinning wretch hails from a wealthy family in Danbury, Conn., a location that later proves incriminating. He can afford a loft that accommodates two gullible classmates Lena Headey as a frolicsome Cathy, who would prefer to be called Jones, and Norman Reedus as a shy collage artist named Travis as well as a bar that seems to outshine the fixtures at a nearby nightclub, where young folks hang out when feeling recklessly carnal.
I was puzzled by generational oddities from one end of “Gossip” to the other. For example, I took it for granted that Derrick and Jones must be an ongoing hot item. To my surprise, smirky sluttiness is a mere facade for Jones during this stretch of exposition; she doesn’t permit Derrick to seduce her on the counter of that lavish bar until she finds out that he has been a liar and a cad.
Clearly, the writers dote on their heroine by awarding her such a nice sense of judgment.
On a further bewildering occasion, Jones and Derrick overhear a bartender sneer at their buddy Travis and fail to come to his defense. Jones later visits the principal victim of Derrick’s treachery, a coed called Naomi (Kate Hudson), in her dorm room and breaks the ice by asking if she can pour herself a straight vodka. Naomi’s ostensible best friend, Sheila (Marisa Coughlan), blabs a gusher to embroider the malicious gossip, including a time-capsule quip that likens her friend’s taste in underwear to “Victoria’s Secret on crystal meth.”
Ostensibly, Derrick, Jones and Travis collaborate on a thesis project that involves originating and then tracking a nasty item of gossip, in which Naomi and Mr. Jackson, as a creepy boyfriend named Beau, function as the dupes. (I assume it was a deliberate nostalgic joke to name guys Beau and Derrick, but this homage to Bo Derek would be more appropriate in a romantic farce.)
Jones begins as a blithe accomplice and then has second thoughts when the repercussions get ugly: Beau is arrested for date rape.
Having conveniently passed out, Naomi can’t remember whether he took advantage of her. Derrick is the source of the rumor because he was peeping at one of their amorous interludes, also conveniently staged at the dive with the mouthy bartender.
Because the police act obtuse, Derrick is set up for a retaliatory sting by his deceived and remorseful roomies.
This deception proves as poorly contrived as the original gossip scenario invented to ruin dopey Naomi and Beau. However, those hoping to cook up a motley thriller of their own about sex-crazed and predatory college students may find it useful to watch “Gossip” unravel and deflate.
RATING: R (Sustained emphasis on depravity among undergraduates; occasional profanity, graphic sexual allusions and graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Davis Guggenheim
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes