[28 July 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Starting with the fact that its “high school students” look closer to 30 than 16, John Tucker Must Die is a film out of joint. With a plot and tones drawn from too many girls-in-high-school movie sources, including Mean Girls, The Perfect Man, and—predictably—Heathers, Betty Thomas’ movie is redundant. Been there, done that, again. The basics are oh so: the titular John (Jesse Metcalfe) is a stereotypical big man on campus: basketball star, ladies’ man, and pathological cheater. Three of his most recent squeezes—head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti), blond techie Carrie (Arielle Kebbel), and dark-haired-vegan Beth (Sophia Bush)—decide to teach him a lesson. And to that girly-devious end, they recruit new student Kate (Brittany Snow) as bait.
Kate is reluctant for a minute, because she’s the film’s designated “good girl.” But she has her own reasons to want revenge on John Tucker the type. As Kate has narrated previously, her “totally hot” mom, Lori (Jenny McCarthy), dates “losers.” These consist of the usual line-up—including drummers—who appear in a montage that has them smiling woefully at Kate, then leaving Lori to drown her sorrows in buckets of chocolate ice cream, before she loads up her car (with daughter) and moves to the next town. Men have been disruptive for Kate. She hates them. Got it.
When Kate overhears the other girls describing their travails, she knows what they mean. When they say they want to make John Tucker “undateable,” she’s in. She agrees to be his next girlfriend, in order to embark on the “systematic destruction of all that is John Tucker.” This even though, technically, Kate is not only a virgin, but has never even been on a date.
Obviously, this is a bad idea.
Still, the girls set to their task with the sort of frantic, montagey gusto that takes up screen time in movies like this—high concept, derivative, condescending movies. Their first step involves humiliation. They dose his bulk-up powder with estrogen: within days, John’s nipples are sensitive, he worries that his “thighs look fat” in his shorts, and he cries when his coach calls him a “pansy ass.” It’s not that you thought John Tucker Must Die was going to challenge gender stereotypes. But does it need to be quite so proud of its unreserved lack of imagination?
Ah well. John is not only not humiliated, but he also goes on to score even more dates because he seems so “sensitive.” Heather, Cassie, and Beth—who function as a unit, even though they do have those individual names—send forth their secret weapon Kate, dressed up as a cheerleader because John loves cheerleaders. This even though she topples the pyramid—apparently in this cheerocracy, what Heather says goes. The team outfits Kate with the latest technology (bra-mounted cameras, mics, and monitors, conveniently found in the school’s expansively equipped Learning Center) that allows them to advise her during her various encounters with the target. He falls pretty much into the scheme, wanting Kate because she turns him down a couple of times, even as she starts to fall for him, because that’s what needs to happen.
The seeming moral in John Tucker Must Die has to do with honesty: boys and girls should talk with each other openly. (It also has to do with the fact that Jenny McCarthy, watching her daughter devolve into a vindictive, popularity mean girl, becomes the most reasonable individual in town: surely, the end is near.) Kate does meet an honest boy she likes, Scott (Penn Badgley), but she treats him badly as she pursues her aim to “get” John. The fact that Scott is also John’s younger, shyer brother seems an unnecessary but wholly unsurprising complication. Kate and Scott are chem lab partners, then they’re not, then they are. It’s not clear how she imagines she’ll date both brothers—one for real and one for revenge—but it’s not like you’re going to spend much time worrying about it.
Such sloppiness makes it hard to care whether John Tucker learns a lesson… or dies, for that matter. Eventually, the girls figure out that revenge in kind doesn’t change anything, that it only perpetuates a cycle. A worthy lesson, to be sure, but not likely to effect profound changes in this apparently deathless formula. Even after identities and intentions are sorted out, the film closes with a song that spells out their priorities: “I want you to want me.” In high school movies, there is indeed no way out.
John Tucker Must Die - Trailer