Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Beth Cooper" fun at first, then blows it

I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009) 
102 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

Blatantly in the same vein as the John Hughes movies of the 1980s, particularly "Sixteen Candles," "I Love You, Beth Cooper" starts out as an amusing, biting high school movie. The key word here is "starts."

Paul Rust (member of the Patrick Dempsey and Sean Penn Schnoz Club, back in their Ronald Miller and Spicoli days) plays socially awkward valedictorian Denis Cooverman who proclaims the title declaration to the object of his affection in front of the whole school at Buffalo Glenn High School's graduation ceremony. Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), a wildly irresponsible but hot honey-blonde cheerleader, tells Denis he embarrassed her but will spare him, unlike her coke-addicted Army-brat boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts). So “The Trinity”—Beth and her two loopy, promiscuous but nameless girlfriends (Lauren Storm, Lauren London)—show up at Denis' house, expecting a wild party and booze galore, and give Denis and his best friend (Jack Carpenter) a night-to-remember crash course in what they've missing out on in their teen years. 

There's illegal attainment of booze, beyond-reckless driving, cow-tipping, breaking into school for a little hanky-panky in the showers, and more where that came from. Known for slapstick and schmaltz, Chris Columbus directs with less heavy-handedness than usually typified in his films, but his tone is wildly uncertain. Gags involving erections, wine corks, and Denis' numerous bully beatings (including being hit by Beth's car) fall as flat as a skunked case of beer, and just a thought, but are frenzied raccoons really that funny anymore (first "Harold & Kumar," then "RV," now this)? 

Although author Larry Doyle adapted the script from his own book, some of the snappy writing, as well as emotion and character insight at the end, feel like throwaways. For instance, as Denis' 24-hour getaway with Beth nears its end, we learn that Beth can't really afford community college and that her brother died. Or, when one of the class bullies that Denis mentions in his grad speech was actually unloved/sexually abused as a child. Rust is perfectly fine and even endearing as nebbish Denis, considering he's 28 years old; Panettiere's initially vapid Beth Cooper shows that her character has more on her mind than sex; and their relationship turns into something kind of sweet. Carpenter is the film's standout as Denis' film-crazy best friend Rich Munsch, who can name the director, release date, and memorable quote of any film but holds doubts with his own sexuality. 

Other than that, no one in the film behaves much like a real person, even by the standards of John Hughesdom, especially Roberts' wound-up, microwave-throwing Kevin who's less preferable than Bill Paxton's macho Army brother from "Weird Science." Speaking of Hughes, Alan Ruck (Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") has a nice throwback role as Denis' dad, who actually encourages his son to lose his virginity by telling him where he keeps the condoms. We've seen a lot of dumb, disposable teen comedies before, but "I Love You, Beth Cooper" is one that actually had potential and blew it.

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