I Love You Beth CooperReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 07/10/09 14:00:00
This summer at the movies has certainly been one of lost perspective. The overhype and overpraise of certain films have been hard to swallow for those of us with the benefit of hindsight. The reboot of Star Trek was greeted with an abundance of love despite all its second half flaws. Drag Me To Hell was proclaimed to be a return to form for Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi even if it was just a greatest hits package that became repetitive after a while. The Hangover continues to be hailed as one of the funniest films of all-time for those who have never seen a comedy before. One of the themes of Larry Doyle’s humorous high school novel (in fact, the central theme) was discovering your expectations were not all they were cracked up to be, even while its nerdy hero held hope through a disasterous evening. Nothing Denis Cooverman goes through in the book though could be as horrendous as sitting through the very movie of his adventures; a film so badly executed that you have to wonder if Larry Doyle (who serves as screenwriter) ever read his own book, let alone wrote it.Graduating valedictorian, Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is giving his final class speech. Amidst his bad jokes and general anxiety, Denis has something else on his mind and he unleashes it in front of a stunned audience. “I love you, Beth Cooper,” he says just getting warmed up to call out his tormentors, stuck-up queen bees and even his best friend, Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter) for being in the closet. Beth (Hayden Panettiere) proclaims her embarrassment afterwards to Denis but can’t help admitting that it was also a sweet gesture. Denis sees a potential opening and invites her over for a party at his house; a party that consists mainly of him and Rich and one probably deep down he doesn’t expect her to show up to. Never say die though as Beth does show up dressed to the nines with friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm).
While things couldn’t go less right in the interaction between the now fivesome, there is the impending arrival of Beth’s coked-up, military boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts) who was also taken down a peg in Denis’ speech. He wants nothing more than to inflict any manner of pain to the kid a quarter his size and after a narrow escape, Denis, Rich and the girls head off into the night together. In-between surviving Beth’s skills as a driver, Denis quickly begins to realize that the beautiful head cheerleader he’s built up in his mind as the love of his life is just another vacuous bubblehead willing to trade kisses with strangers for beer. If memory recalls, in the book the line, “I sucked his face for like two seconds” was not said at “face” value if you catch my drift.
Softening down the raunchier aspects of the book is hardly the film’s greatest sin though. Certainly no one who recommended Doyle’s original text (as I was) could argue that the adaptation doesn’t follow the general plot to the letter, including all the horrific beatings. What’s missing though are the subtle elements that Doyle was initially chasing in writing what was an attempt at satirizing all those ‘80s teen comedies (mainly from John Hughes) that so many of us grew up with. It’s bad enough for residents of the Chicago suburbs to see all the knowing references to our area either jettisoned of half-heartedly changed. (Buffalo Grove High School becomes Buffalo Glenn and Harper Community College becomes Harpers.) Especially when it was filmed in Vancouver. Even Tina Fey found way to insert a little of where she came from into the vastly superior Mean Girls. But I Love You Beth Cooper doesn’t come within a Magnificent Mile of Hughes’ worst efforts in his post-Home Alone era, one that began in earnest with director Chris Columbus who has gone from Harry Potter to Rent to this.
Columbus has never been a director that ever inspired the need for a retrospective. His mileage has come mostly from box office success including two Home Alones, the first two Harry Potters and Mrs. Doubtfire. The critical accolades may never have been there but Columbus has at least demonstrated the occasional bit of competence in setting up comedic situations or pulling a syrupy heartstring here or there. Plus we can give the writer of Gremlins and The Goonies a little credit. I Love You, Beth Cooper isn’t just a reflection of Columbus’ worst instincts as a director, it’s one of zero instincts. If the film doesn’t plod along enough without a laugh meter, Columbus tries to boost things with a series of character flashbacks that are supposed to not only be funny in and of themselves but emphasize the potential gags bookending them. It’s one of several examples of things that may have worked on the page but take the uncomfortable flow of the film to new lows.
One thing that didn’t work in Doyle’s book, a true page-killer every time he appeared was the character of Beth’s boyfriend. Clearly inspired by Bill Paxton’s over-aggressive and bullying Chet from Weird Science, Kevin is not just an aggravate he’s a true psychotic. Not an over-the-top version of a big bad brother that extorted money at gunpoint, but a guy who looks ready to kill Denis in every scene. Shawn Roberts plays him as such and Columbus may think he’s helping him by blasting Ride of the Valkyries in his first charge to Denis’ home but the unpleasantness and excessive violence the character brings with him is more apt to make you wince than chuckle. Of course, Denis, as played by Rust, is not the kind of nerd we choose to root for in films like this. He’s not The Geek from Sixteen Candles, Ducky from Pretty In Pink or even McLovin from Superbad. Denis has a borderline creepiness to him. We expect the social awkwardness that comes with the outsider territory, but Rust chooses to play him like the guy who turns out to be the serial killer at the end of a teen slasher film; the one trying to impress but always dismissed and ignored. The book had the benefit of an inner monologue for Denis that provided most of the best laughs and the decision to jettison it entirely (without even a cliched narrator) reduces him to a guy that even the nerds would outcast. Doyle didn’t appear to write him as a caricature that he wanted to treat as a punching bag. But the punishment on paper is only excessorized on screen with numerous shots to the face, getting sideswiped by a speeding car and suffering a cut opening a champagne bottle that rivals Dan Akyroyd’s SNL accident as Julia Child. These aren’t the moments we’re supposed to be applauding.I got to Doyle’s book just as casting for the film began and at the time I thought they couldn’t have found anyone better for the role of Beth Cooper than Panettiere. Not so much for any comic chops she may have had but because she represented the vision of what that character was. (And she already had at least two cheerleader roles under her belt.) To her credit she does match the Beth Cooper as Doyle wrote her, but seeing her in the flesh is the same experience that Denis must be having in realizing that her on/off switch of popular party-hearty girl to one who just wants to be loved now that her best years are behind her is just as superficially conceived (if not more) than all the third-act wounds opened by John Hughes back in the day. Only Lauren Storm really comes close to the kind of comic timing that made the book such a pleasure to keep reading. The movie makes you wish you had a book – in braille – than fruitlessly hoping that a genuine laugh or emotion is on the horizon in this abomination. Even movie geeks will want to take a second look at their lives as they want to smack Denis’ sidekick for his insistence on announcing the film, year and director any time someone spouts out a line from a movie (intentional or not.) What’s supposed to be meant as a way to call attention to the way characters in films like this spout out cliches in-between every breath instead achieves the impossible in becoming a more annoying tick than the boys in the little seen Man In The Chair high-fiving every time someone mentioned a “cool director.” Plus if you are sitting there watching I Love You, Beth Cooper and more outraged that Rich gets the release year of DePalma’s Scarface wrong you may need to rethink your life’s ambition. I know I am.
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