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In the summer of 1998 I took all of my friends to see Can't Hardly Wait, a high school comedy led by a perky TV star that by all measures should have been terrible. Instead it was utterly charming, and has lasted as a kind of cultural touchstone for anyone in middle and high school at the end of the 90s.
And now, for those kids in middle and high school at the end of the 00s, there's I Love You Beth Cooper, another high school comedy led by another perky TV star that also trots out the age-old formula of pairing the uber-geek with the head cheerleader. And I want you younguns to sit down and listen to me. I know Can't Hardly Wait. Can't Hardly Wait sits proudly on my DVD shelf. And you, I Love You Beth Cooper, are no Can't Hardly Wait.
It's not just that none of the actors are talented-- Paul Rust, as the geek, and Hayden Panettiere, as yet another cheerleader, are no more or less skilled than Ethan Embry and Jennifer Love Hewitt back in the day. And it's not just that the story is stupid, since the "one crazy night after graduation" formula has been done so many times that we can usually just enjoy the tame debauchery. What sets Beth Cooper apart, what makes it a truly awful movie rather than an average bad one, is that it seems to have been directed by an actual 18-year-old, who thinks that pausing for laughs and telegraphing jokes a mile away is a guarantee of comedy success.
Even more baffling, this disaster was directed by Chris Columbus, who hasn't exactly made masterpieces, but presumably knows how movies are actually put together. The rookie mistakes he makes, like cutting between scenes that have nothing to do with one another, or stringing out a running joke that never pays off, give the impression that Columbus simply signed his name on some call sheets and retreated back to his yacht. I have no idea why he was attracted to this fairly small-scale story, but I really don't know how he managed to put it together so incompetently.
I've already told you that it's a story about the geek wooing the cheerleader the night after graduation, so I'm not sure what other plot you need. There's a best friend (Jack Carpenter), who is annoying even before he spends the entire movie insisting he's not gay. And Beth Cooper (Panettiere), who shows up at Denis' (Rust) party mostly as a joke, carries with her a ditzy sidekick (Lauren Storm) and a black one (Lauren London) who have no character development at all. The five of them spend the night driving around in Beth's car, running away from her coked-out military boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), causing severe property damage with no repercussions, and, y'know, watching Denis and Beth fall in love. This is accomplished by leaving the two alone for a bit, giving them one or two deep lines of dialogue (like "Look at the sun; it's so big and pretty") and then cranking up the hijinks yet again.
I feel bad for Alan Ruck, who starred in the great Ferris Bueller's Day Off and is now forced to be a generic dad character in a hugely inferior imitation. I feel bad for Rust and Carpenter, who are both irritating to no end but, in their mid-20s, should at least be past these kinds of roles. But I've got no sympathy for Panettiere, who dives into her first star vehicle with minimal charm or effort, coasting on her blonde locks and nubile frame the same way she's done on Heroes for three season. For all of high school Beth Cooper has been Denis' unattainable dream girl, and the intended purpose of the film is to turn her into a real person; as played by Panettiere, she may as well be a pin-up.
Then again, it's silly to complain about acting in a movie that's so poorly scripted (by the guy who wrote the original book, no less, Larry Doyle) and so poorly directed by someone who obviously knows better. Poor Beth Cooper, so unloved, so ditched on a weekend when it's sure to be crushed by Bruno, so uninteresting even to the people who created it.