Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper

If Chris Columbus was more like his namesake, John Hughes would be his India, and mediocrity would be the Americas upon which he accidentally stumbled. While his early career scripts for such '80s gems as The Goonies and Gremlins display a bouncy and endearing wit, subsequent efforts, be they penned or directed, typically feel staid and slick, giving them a Teflon coating that won't allow Hughes' syrupy sentimentality to stick. Indeed, his Potter films were so glossed over that they conveyed neither the wonder of Hogwarts nor the danger of Harry's adventures. He has outdone himself, however, with I Love You, Beth Cooper, a high school comedy seeking to marry Hughes' optimistic and occasionally insightful view of youth with Superbad's raunch and pure laugh factor that fails catastrophically to do either.

The setup of Beth Cooper plays out like a nerd's wildest fantasy: when valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) delivers his speech to his graduating peers, he tells them not to leave high school with any regrets, to do or say something before it's too late. He then proceeds to lambaste those who made high school difficult for him and declares his love for the titular character (Hayden Panettiere). The students, faculty and parents are understandably shocked, but the incident passes without too much ado. Beth even thinks it was kind of sweet, and agrees to come to Denis' party later. Denis and his sexually confused best friend Rich (Jack Carpenter), prepare their sad little soirée, which is crashed by Beth and her friends, as well as her older, military trained boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), who's still fuming over being insulted in Denis' speech, both directly and indirectly with Denis' declaration to Beth.

What follows is a woefully predictable retread of every high school caper so thoroughly ripped off from at least a dozen better movies that it even casts Ferris Bueller's best friend himself, Alan Ruck, to play Denis' father. In this high school, girls and bullies travel in trios, the head cheerleader somehow has a key to the school because it's a position of trust (I'm sure that's from the book, but are they insane?), and a teacher can actually say to Denis, "I wouldn't take heterosexual advice from Rich Munsch." (I actually tried to look up the name of the actress who played that teacher when I got home [I couldn't bear to sit through the credits for fear that there was actually more to see], and I can't find it anywhere. Neither her name or the role appear on IMDb, which I thought spoke volumes.)

At one point, the most transparently awful and contrived piece of writing in the film, the two nerds must inevitably follow their three new lady friends to the biggest party in town, where all the people whom Denis insulted are raving it up. They pull up to a huge mansion, big enough to serve as a school in its own right, and one of the girls mentions that the chick who lives there -- Denis called out her for being an insecure, "stuck-up bitch" -- got a nose job for graduation. Oh, did I mention that all of these kids graduated from public school? I have never in my life shouted something at the screen, not in my home and certainly not a crowded theater, but I had to genuinely bite my lip to keep from asking aloud, "So she went to public school, but she lives in a house like this?" I went to private school. My parents' house is too small to be the garage of this behemoth. Am I, or anyone else, expected to believe that someone who grew up in this city block of a home, who received plastic surgery for her high school graduation, wouldn't be enrolled in the finest school in the state, regardless of merit?

That's a minor nitpick, though, when so much around it is just as bad. When Kevin and his ROTC buddies wreck Denis' house and force him to flee, he leaves his cell phone behind, but only a few scenes later he and Beth bond over his ring tone, which is, naturally, "Beth" by KISS (also, the entire damn song plays for his ring tone). Well, when the hell did he get his phone back? The bully Denis called out (Josh Emerson) looks like some monstrous love child of Seth Rogen and Ron Perlman, but he becomes Denis' friends through the cheapest of plot devices. Rich's open-secret homosexuality is played for baiting laughs: he runs delicately and enthusiastically dances with the cheerleaders when they give Denis a show. And, of course, Beth is the typical female driver, dangerous and airheaded with a total disregard for the damage she causes.

At the heart of it, however, even beyond the terrible writing, I Love You, Beth Cooper fails because its cast is uniformly terrible. I could have sworn I'd seen Jack Carpenter in something before this, but that's only because his look and his approach to this two-dimensional role are so tired I've seen some iteration of him in half a dozen other films. Panettiere has absolutely no presence and no chemistry with anyone in the film, and Beth's cruel and self-absorbed ways leave us with no reason to root for a hook-up. Worst of all is Rust: he aims to portray that irresistibly sweet and romantic geek, but his idolatry of someone he's never even spoken recalls Travis Bickle more than Lloyd Dobler. He has no sense of comic timing, no geek chic look à la Michael Cera and his sole idea of getting a laugh consists of making high-pitched shrieks. Rust will appear next in Quentin Tarantino's gonzo WWII epic Inglourious Basterds; hopefully, Tarantino can give him something worth saying.

Supposedly, Larry Doyle's novel is a gleeful subversion of Hughesian tropes, one that works within that pristine, simplified world but gives its own valid take on Hughes' more symbolic than real characters. Throughout the film all I could think was, "Man, Doyle must be pissed with this." To my shock, however, he received the credit for the screenplay. Now, either Columbus, himself an inept Hughes disciple, took Doyle's treatment and reduced it to PG-13 gross-out pablum, or Doyle, formerly a writer for The Simpsons, knew little about adapting work for a feature film and ended up diluting it past the point of entertainment. Treece's (Lauren Storm) bizarre non-sequiturs elicited the only chuckles of the film, but even that character is too much a lazy copy of the typical loopy friend to resonate past a few lucky strikes (see a far better version of this same character in the vastly superior Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist). The only people I could possibly conceive of enjoying this picture are Heroes fans because, let's face it, anyone who still watches that show clearly will sit through anything for a glimpse of Panettiere.

Near the end of the film, Beth notes that Denis has a bright future ahead of him, one sure to contain fiscal success and personal contentment, while high school is as good as it's ever going to get. I've always wanted to see that duality played out in a film or series; even the best high school retrospectives -- Dazed and Confused, Freaks and Geeks -- cast the film entirely from the P.O.V. of the outsiders to glorify them and reveal the tragedy of the popular cliques, but those perspectives are tainted with bitterness. To my knowledge, no film has ever managed to stand in the middle of both groups and honestly depict the pros and cons of each side -- if I'm wrong, please let me know because I would greatly like to watch it. And for Columbus and Doyle to casually toss off the line at the end of the movie for a desperate grab at poignancy demonstrates everything that's wrong with this unholy mess of a cliché.

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