I Love You, Beth Cooper

Look, Beth Cooper, I think you're sweet. I mean, you've got some funny moments, and, you know, occasionally one of your characters stops being annoying long enough to border on a real, human moment. And you're based on a beloved novel, so you've got that going for you! Really, I just know there's somebody out there that's perfect for you, somebody who can love and appreciate all that have to offer, just as soon as they figure out what those things might be. But I'm not that guy. It's not you, Beth Cooper, it's me. Actually, no, that's a lie. It's pretty much entirely you. Why did I go out with you again? In the high-school food chain, golden-locked Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere) is a lioness. She's hot, she's a cheerleader, she's the alpha female amongst the school's popular mean-girl trinity. And Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is...well, he's the gangly, awkward valedictorian who wears Spider-Man Underoos because they're "lucky." It's not surprising that he's had a thing for Beth Cooper for years; what is surprising is that he uses his graduation speech to declare his love for Beth (and to further alienate most of his other classmates, including Beth's homicidal meathead boyfriend). This being a teen comedy, is there any doubt that Denis and Beth will overcome the social gap that divides them, learn some things about themselves, and wind up kissing while a top 40 hit plays in the background? If only things worked out as well for the audience.

After the death of John Hughes this past August, every publication and website on the planet (us included) spent some time remembering the man's legacy and trying to figure out why he's one of the few filmmakers on the planet that seemed to genuinely "get" the high school experience. Hughes' characters were silly and shallow and petty and horny and fickle, but they seemed real in a way that the two-dimensional walking clichés of most teen comedies could never equal. The things they worried about and hoped for felt like the things all of us worried about and hoped for when we were their age, and even when they were the butt of the joke, they never felt like they existed solely to serve that function. Every coming-of-age comedy that's come since has been chasing that magic. Every once in a while, one comes close. But most of the time? Most of the time you get I Love You, Beth Cooper.

The film's based on a generally well-reviewed novel of the same name, and the screenplay was written by the same guy who wrote that novel, former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle. And maybe, just maybe, he wasn't the right guy for this job. Granted, writing for the Simpsons isn't necessarily the benchmark of talent it once was, and granted, Doyle's other film credits include the scripts for Duplex and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. But let's presume for the moment that he is a good writer, as is suggested by the positive buzz surrounding the novel. Maybe he was just too close to his own work to see how to bring the heart and soul of his book to the screen. Doyle says in one of the featurettes that he was inspired by and trying to echo the great teen comedies that came before, but the resulting film has none of the heart or honesty of Hughes or -- so I've heard -- of Doyle's original novel.

It doesn't help that Chris Columbus is in the director's chair. He's spent the last 15 years or so elevating bland to an art form, and he certainly doesn't break that streak here. Tedious direction is a small problem, however, when compared with a script that hinges upon our wanting to see Denis and Beth wind up together, but then presents them both as completely unlikeable. It's not difficult at all to understand why they aren't together, but I was no more invested in their pairing at the end than I was at the beginning. Denis is a collection of pitiable quirks and awkwardness designed to make us feel sorry for him, but somewhere along the way the mixture goes awry and he instead just remains aggressively annoying from start to finish. And even if we liked him, we would surely want him to find love with someone more appealing than Beth Cooper, as flimsy a chimera of "popular-girl" tropes as had ever been cobbled together by committee. The film is forever attempting to flip its paper-thin characterization on its head -- "See, she's a bitchy popular girl, but only because she's lonely" -- but it never actually provides any of the depth it claims exists beneath the veneer of cliché. It's the casually racist friend who keeps swearing he has lots of black friends, but never invites any of them to his parties.

Hughes' movies worked largely because they felt honest. I Love You, Beth Cooper doesn't feel honest. This is a movie where the main character faces off with an angry and violent boyfriend while wielding only a plastic lightsaber -- and still seems surprised at the ass-beating that follows. This is a movie where Denis' best friend is named Richard Munsch (think about it, it'll come to you). The characters act in ways that are convenient, but never convincing.

And yes, Beth Cooper, I did notice that you cast Ferris Bueller alum Alan Ruck as Denis' dad. I see what you're doing there, but you're not fooling anyone. It's always a little awkward to watch the special features for a movie you didn't particularly like. Everyone is so enthusiastic about the project that the experience eventually becomes like every time I stumble into a conversation with a Twilight fan: a whole lot of me smiling politely and looking for an excuse to sneak out the back.

I Love You, Beth Cooper doesn't offer any more innovation on the special-features front than it does in the actual film. Two "Fox Movie Channel Presents" featurettes focus on stars Hayden Panettiere and Paul Rust, and they're the usual press-kit fluff. The 10-minute "We Are All Different, But That's a Good Thing" feature is more of the same, but a bit more enjoyable and covering the cast as a whole.

"I Love You, Larry Doyle" is basically a sit-down interview with the writer discussing the novel and screenplay, and the cast heaping praise on his story. Running at a scant five minutes, the featurette feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Regardless of how well the film turned out, it would have been interesting to hear more about where the novel came from and how Doyle went about adapting his own work for the screen. A longer featurette or, hell, even a commentary, could very likely have been more entertaining than the film itself (no great feat, mind you, but still).

Four deleted scenes leave no doubt as to why they were deleted, mostly just extended versions of what is included in the final cut. There's also a very different alternate ending that drags on too long but does include one memorable line: "Oh God, we're stupid teenagers who just had sex in a cabin by a lake. We're so very dead."

There are some trailers that I quite frankly didn't even click on -- because really, who does? And then there is a little thing called "Peanut Butter Toast." "Peanut Butter Toast" introduces itself as "a completely improvised song by Paul Rust...about Peanut Butter Toast," and that is certainly accurate. We're not talking "gag reel of an Apatow film" improv here, however. This is more in the zone of "amateur night five minutes before closing time at the local dive comedy club out near the truck stops." It's actor Paul Rust making peanut butter toast. While singing about it. For almost three minutes.

Look, I'm sure "Peanut Butter Toast" was fun to make. Paul Rust certainly seems to be enjoying himself, and somebody involved with the DVD obviously thought it was funny enough to merit inclusion. But just because it was fun for them doesn't mean the rest of us want to see it. Rather like the film as a whole, come to think of it.