*½/**** Image N/A Sound N/A Extras C
starring Hayden Panettiere, Paul Rust, Jack T. Carpenter, Lauren London
screenplay by Larry Doyle, based on his novel
directed by Chris Columbus
by Jefferson Robbins I believe this is what it looks like when a veteran director throws in the towel. Morosely paced, edited with no ear for slapstick, perfectly mediocre in its staging, timing, scripting, and performances, I Love You, Beth Cooper (hereafter Beth Cooper) betrays benign neglect on the part of producer-director Chris Columbus. It's as if he tossed together all the ingredients for a thoughtful but teen-friendly confection--a recipe inherited from his late mentor John Hughes--and took it on faith that the cake would bake itself. There's even a weird invocation of the dead god of teen comedies: Columbus casts Alan Ruck, a.k.a. Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as the hero's dad and supplies the sidekick with Cameron's absent, oppressive shadow of a father. That's not homage--that's the desperate rubbing of a talisman, a prayer to recapture lightning that leaked out of the bottle long ago.
Central-casting nerd Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust), valedictorian of his Washington state high school, uses his commencement address to call out his various rivals and confess his amour fou for the head cheerleader of the title. Intrigued as much as mortified, Beth (Hayden Panettiere) and her posse of pretties shanghai Denis and his lifelong friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter) for a graduation-night adventure, pursued by Beth's ridiculously homicidal G.I. boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts). There's your Hughesian high concept: class boundaries breached by social missteps and absurd peril, offering a one-night-only chance at intimate human contact. But in Hughes, the absurd and the human intermingle gracefully, partly due to the auteur's feel for character and his rhythm in the editing suite. Columbus's oddities linger too long, with no reality-rooted viewpoint character (e.g. Molly Ringwald's Sam Baker) to stand outside them as audience surrogate.
Panettiere's Beth could occupy that vantage, yet unlike Hughes's women, she's a whole person only in contrast with the misfits and mean-girl types orbiting her. Mostly, this is meant to be the threshold role that graduates Panettiere from high school in the public consciousness. Hence the skimpy outfits, the suggestive line deliveries, the glint of sideboob. Allowed to hold the centre, she grants shadings and touches to her character that make one grateful. Her Beth truly believes she's wrapping up the best part of her life by leaving high school; there's a legitimate darkness in her that's merely hinted at in the movie's other roles. That said, she neglects how far beauty (and an obvious shrewdness) can get you throughout your life, not merely in grades K-12, and her fatalism finally makes us shrug.
The group's nighttime excursion is joyless, shabbily costumed, and flatly photographed, despite the presence of ace DP Phil Abraham.1 Denis and Rich are such overwritten stereotypes that they'll appeal to neither actual nerds nor those who might get a chuckle from looking down on them. While Rust shows eagerness and skill at physical comedy, he's too often let down in the cutting room and by the film's questionable physics. (A sudden car stop should throw your head forward, not sideways into the lap of the nearest female in a miniskirt.) Nemesis Kevin, though relentless, is too easily dodged and dispatched, and played too Jack Nicholson-lite by Roberts to be taken seriously. And Rich's only real trait is a tendency to cite movies like a human IMDb. His sexuality is much discussed and explored, to no good result. A tip for screenwriters: there's not one goddamn funny thing about a teenager struggling with his sexual identity. That's called a tragedy.
I Love You, Beth Cooper first existed as a humorous novel by Larry Doyle, here remaking his own work into a screenplay. I haven't read the source book, but in his interview for this DVD he cops to pastiching the best of Hughes--The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, of course, at the top of the list. I suspect the characters' milieu and motivations are better plumbed in the text; Columbus is not interested in exploring the social terrarium of high school, the way Mark Waters did in Mean Girls. To make the scenario work, we just have to superimpose what we know of teen comedies over Beth Cooper's existing story. It's too bad, because before we're asked to sympathize with Denis and Rich, we should have a sense of the forces that tempered them.
Fox supplied a watermarked DVD-R for review purposes, so questions of how the video (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) and audio (DD 5.1) rate are left for the consumer to discover. Still, it appears to have the full range of menu options, from the forced opening trailers (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Alexis Bledel vehicle Post Grad, (500) Days of Summer, All About Steve, Fox's back catalogue of romantic comedies) to the alternate ending. That revision, by the way, finds Denis embroiled in a fabulous macking session with Beth--a physical victory, where in the finished cut the pair's triumph is more interpersonal. It also provides comeuppance to Kevin the Barbarian, short-circuited by more gay jokes and more drawn-out physical comedy.
Leadoff featurette "I Love You, Larry Doyle" (6 mins.) profiles the author/screenwriter, with Rust, Panettiere, Carpenter, and co-stars Lauren London and Lauren Storm showering praise on both his book and his script. The writer relates how he sold the book based on a 100-page sample, and had Hollywood throwing money at him within two days of its acceptance by a publisher. I hate you, Larry Doyle. "We Are All Different, But That's A Good Thing" (9 mins.) is the typical back-patting EPK material, as castmembers assess their characters and praise each other. Rust knows his distinctive looks helped win him the part of the dork but says, "I try to play it where it's not like a caricature of a dorky person, but a real person."2 Although Columbus is seen in action, he's not interviewed anywhere on this disc, nor is there a commentary track of any kind. (If I don't look at the movie, Columbus thinks, maybe it won't see me.) The segment "Peanut Butter Toast" (3 mins.) is just Rust singing, alone in his trailer, to a video camera, and...oh God, I almost want to renounce everything I said in that last footnote. Lastly, if you choose, you may cue up bonus trailers for My Life in Ruins, Adam, Fame, and The Marine II. Choose otherwise.-Originally published: November 10, 2009.
1. Abraham, a hero of mine for his work on "Mad Men", nonetheless achieves some lucidly beautiful shots: Denis and Beth examining each other by the fluorescent light of a quick-stop beer cooler, or talking by the banks of a silvery lake at dawn. return
2. Rust's casting could almost be called daring. A theatrical performer and writer who's only broken into film and TV in the last few years, he has the distinctive look of a second banana--the kind of guy who would've had the role of Rich, not Denis, in a different production. His presence stands out as a somewhat courageous act in a film that's otherwise hidebound and by-the-numbers. Something about Rust recalls for me a young Edward Norton; I hope he's better served by future projects. return