I Love You, Beth Cooper (United States, 2009)July 09, 2009
I Love You, Beth Cooper contains a share of effective elements wrapped around the core that, overall, isn't very good. Although masquerading as a generic teen romantic comedy, the film touches on topics that are atypically introspective for this sort of production, although it fails to delve into them in a manner that would elevate the proceedings to a higher level. The tone is an uneven brew of the satirical and the serious, although the former lacks the edge to give it bite and the latter is only occasionally applied with conviction. The result feels at odds with itself and never fully satisfies. There's a sense that a much better movie is trying to get out but it never attains escape velocity.
It's graduation day for the seniors of Buffalo Grove High, and valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is about to deliver an unusual address. In it, he professes unrequited love for the school's head cheerleader, Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). This delights Denis' best friend, Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), who is the instigator of Denis' confession. Beth is conflicted - despite being embarrassed, she finds the whole thing "so sweet." Her thuggish, drugged-out boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts), decides that ending Denis' life might be the best way to resolve an unpleasant situation. Events conspire to group Denis, Beth, Rich, and Beth's two best friends, Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm), together for the night. Their misadventures include avoiding Kevin when he launches an attack on Denis' house, breaking into the school for some fun in the showers, turning up at the most popular party of the evening, and spending time in a cabin in the woods. Out for blood, Kevin is always in hot pursuit, and both Beth and Denis discover things about their feelings for one another they weren't expecting.
The intended raunchy content has been watered down for PG-13 consumption. There is nudity, but it's of the peek-a-boo variety, and it doesn't take a genius to guess what a "deep kiss" was originally designed to be. Director Chris Columbus, a graduate of the John Hughes school of filmmaking (perhaps best known for handling the first two Harry Potter movies), avoids anything deeply scathing or controversial. Although I Love You, Beth Cooper doesn't quite fit neatly into the teenage romantic comedy mold, it comes close, with titles like Risky Business and The Girl Next Door being appropriate antecedents. (The Tom Cruise movie is even mentioned explicitly.) Of course, neither of those films can boast a scene in which the characters venture into a pasture to do some cow-tipping and one steps in a steaming pile of manure. It's moments like this - and there are a few others - that do irreparable damage to I Love You, Beth Cooper's attempts to be "more."
Despite being ten years beyond high school graduation age, Paul Rust is well-cast as the uber-nerdy Denis. I Love You, Beth Cooper is Rust's coming-out party, but this is not his only screen credit of the summer: he can also be seen in Inglorious Basterds, in which one hopes the screenplay and director better serve him. Hayden Panettiere is best-known for her role in the TV series Heroes, although her acting career stretches back much farther. She shows impressive range here, essentially having to play three versions of Beth Cooper: the image that attracts the eyes and stirs the hormones of all the boys in school (including Denis); the scary, reckless one who pushes boundaries and buttons; and the "real" girl behind all the curtains. Panettiere integrates the three into one, which is a more adept task than one might imagine. The performance is better than the movie deserves.
One of my recurrent complaints about romantic comedies is the lack of conversation between the leads. Falling in love in a movie consists of argument as foreplay followed by deep, meaningful stares and heartfelt confessions of undying affection. Dialogue is a rarity and substantive dialogue almost never occurs. I Love You, Beth Cooper does two things right in this arena: Denis and Beth actually say things to each other and they do not fall victim to "happily ever after" romance. They are, after all, teenagers. Denis must replace the idealized Beth around which his fantasies have been built with an image of someone more human and vulnerable, and Beth must see Denis as more than a caricature. Unfortunately, I Love You, Beth Cooper doesn't just chronicle this joint emotional journey; it throws in a lot of crap that distracts, detracts, annoys, and ultimately takes over. It's hard to imagine any way in which jettisoning Kevin would not have improved the story. In addition, while "friends" are mandatory accessories in teen movies, Rich, Cammy, and Treece often feel like extraneous appendages.
I Love You, Beth Cooper recognizes that, for a teenager, high school graduation stands at the nexus between past and future. For some, like Beth, high school is the high point of life - a period when her position at the top of the student popularity pyramid provides her with the illusion of greatness. For others, like Denis, high school is a necessary transition between childhood and a promising future. Their divergent perspectives define how they interact with each other during this night. Sadly, the film doesn't do nearly as much as it could with this material.
There's a sense that I Love You, Beth Cooper has been smoothed out and dumbed down to reach the broadest audience. (Not having read the novel by Larry Doyle, who also penned the screenplay, I can't say for sure.) As good as some of the bonding material is, that's how unfortunate many of the so-called comedic and generic story elements are. I Love You, Beth Cooper is schizophrenic - two very different movies uneasily occupying the same space and time. One of them has promise; the other is annoying and off-putting. The filmmakers lacked the courage and conviction to tell an honest, character-based story and resorted to something that has been massaged into a more comfortable, easily consumable cinematic morsel. Too bad the inevitable result of ingesting this is heartburn.
I Love You, Beth Cooper (United States, 2009)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Larry Doyle, based on his novel
Cinematography: Phil Abraham
Music: Christophe Beck
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