Apparently, previous accomplishments and past reputation mean nothing in the “what have you done for me lately” world of Hollywood hackdom. Just because you’ve made excellent films as a director (Adventures in Babysitting, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or were responsible for several excellent episodes of a seminal animated series (The Simpsons) doesn’t mean you can deliver something special - or even watchable. The sad fact is that, for all it’s post-millennial Generation Z posturing, I Love You Beth Cooper is an abject failure. It’s not funny. It’s not insightful. And just when you think it will wake up and deliver the kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgia that made John Hughes a wealthy recluse, it continuous its path toward complete cinematic incompetence.
Egged on by his fey friend Rich, high school valedictorian Denis Cooverman decides to use his ceremonial speech to say all the things he never had the nerve to during his tenure as resident class geek. During his address, he calls out the bully who beat him up. He points out the snobby girls who wouldn’t give him the time of day. He even shames an ex-student who dates the girl of his unrequited dreams. And yes, eventually, he says the five magic words that will change his life - or at least his graduation party plans - forever. When Beth Cooper unexpectedly arrives at his house, ready to show Denis a good time, little does our dork know that such a special night will include run-ins with her Roid-raging boyfriend, various terrifying traffic incidents, a rabid raccoon attack, and the realization that, sometimes, fantasy is a million light years away from lovelorn reality.
If comedy is all timing, then I Love You Beth Cooper is temporally retarded. It is so bereft of laughs that you can actually watch it leeching them out of surrounding films. This is a low point for everyone involved, even those actors and crewmembers who are just starting out in their big screen careers. There is really nothing shocking about an attempting teen burlesque that doesn’t work. Hollywood has been trading T&A for talent in this genre since Sixteen Candles morphed into Some Kind of Wonderful. But aside from some underage drinking and a couple of references to sex, I Love You Beth Cooper is all (enfeebled) brains and no bawdiness. This is the least titillating coming of age saga since This Boy’s Life, and at least that film had Robert DeNiro to up the “va-va-va-voom” factor.
It’s not just that director Chris Columbus has seemingly lost his creative marbles. It’s not just the fact that the first 15 minutes sit there like a fetid fish carcass bloating in the sun. It’s not the bad casting, the anemic acting, the lack of any plot logic or focus. No, the biggest surprise here is how I Love You Beth Cooper can’t generate a single significant emotion - except anger, or course. We don’t care about anyone here. We find Denis and his decisions about as rational as a stalker explaining their human body part collection. Sure, we all have a high school crush, someone who we always thought was out of our league or incapable of dialing into our own idiosyncratic wavelength. But longing does not equal likeability - especially when it is attached to a best friend who can’t stop spewing meaningless movie trivia.
As Denis, Paul Rust is regressive, acting like someone whose IQ drops at random intervals. One moment, he’s quoting quantum physics. The next, he’s running around in Spiderman Underoos. As his “I’m Not Gay” buddy Rich, Jack Carpenter is all mensch and no meaning. His performance is wound so tightly, and his mannerism so manufactured and false, that we keep wondering when he will let down the façade and show us the truth. It never happens. Indeed, that’s I Love You Beth Cooper in a nutshell. Instead of giving us real people who act in formulaic ways, we get sad stereotypes who try, unsuccessfully, to overcome the clichés involved.
This is especially true of Heroes honey Hayden Panettiere. As actresses go, she’s one short lived TV series phenomenon removed from a stint in reality TV. As a blond blank, she’s barely tolerable. As our lead, she needs to be irresistible and ingratiating, the kind of gal who stirs your loins as well as your intellect. But she’s really just the typical pretty girl with a sad backstory: a dead brother; a seemingly loveless home life; a need to feel special and wanted by the boys in school. What is this, an episode of The Maury Povich Show? How Beth Cooper survived four years of schooling without becoming a stripper of having her own sex tape makes no sense. But since Panettiere is so distant here, we never get a handle on all the hurt. Instead, Denis looks like a douche for idolizing such a superficial subject.
We may expect better from ex-Simpsons scribe Larry Doyle, but his only other screenplays - the horrid Duplex and the semi-successful Looney Tunes: Back in Action - indicate a level of accomplishment that more or less dooms this particular project. Many found the novel unique in its exploration of the dark side of high school life. But when translated to the silver screen, edge is not endearing. Indeed, there are several moments in I Love You Beth Cooper when you question why the police haven’t gotten involved - not that the adults seem to care. After their car and home is destroyed by random acts of adolescent stupidity, Ma and Pa Cooverman smile like lobotomized cretins and simply accept the vandalism.
Indeed, this is a film that feels bereft of all the wit, style, and substance. Instead of looking at the truth behind teenage cliques and the cruelty they can foster, we get standard he/she awkwardness, drunken antics, and more mangled movie quotes than Ben Lyons could honestly tolerate. Anyone tackling this particular genre has their work cut out for them. Between the past and the present, the sniggling naiveté of the ‘80s and the post-millennial mainstream of porn, a teen romp has a tough row to hoe. Superbad managed by emphasizing the foul mouthed and the filthy. I Love You Beth Cooper crashes because it can’t decide how to handle its many competing conceits. You’d figure with the people involved behind the scenes, this would be an easy clash to conclude. Clearly, it wasn’t.