Can't Hardly Wait (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Can't Hardly Wait, I suppose first time directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (whose previous credits include writing the script for A Very Brady Sequel) were trying to recapture the mood of a John Hughes '80s teen comedy. Unfortunately, while perhaps aiming for the level of The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, they have come a lot closer to the likes of Revenge of the Nerds. Can't Hardly Wait is a painfully predictable account of that ultimate teenage bacchanalia -- the post-graduation party. Yet, instead of bringing intriguing characters with real problems and interesting dialogue to the bash, Kaplan and Elfont take the lazy approach of pulling generic stereotypes off the shelf and throwing them into a formulaic plot that doesn't offer one genuine surprise or meaningful moment.

Can't Hardly Wait is awash in pointless subplots. Depending on how one counts them, there are at least six or seven. Some are given more screen time than others, but none has enough to flesh out the characters beyond two-dimensionality or to get us interested in their lives. The difference between a good movie with an ensemble cast and a bad one is how easily the protagonists and their individual pieces of the overall plot engage the viewer. Instead of taking a few risks to win us over, Can't Hardly Wait traverses the tediously safe route by stringing together a series of would-be "cute" scenes, slapstick humor (drunks are always supposed to be funny, right?), and trite "bonding" moments.

Everything in Can't Hardly Wait transpires during the course of one all-night party. School's out, the summer is just beginning, and the graduating seniors of Huntington Hills High School are ready to do the two things that rootless teens do best: get drunk and get laid. The main story, inasmuch as there can be considered a main story in a film this overcrowded, focuses on Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry), an articulate, lovestruck young man who has spent the past four years pining for the unattainable Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Now, in a shocking development, Amanda has been dumped by long-time boyfriend Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), leaving the door wide open for Preston, if he can get up the courage to speak to her. Meanwhile, the class valedictorian, William Lichter (Charlie Korsmo), is hatching a plot to avenge himself upon Mike for years of cruel practical jokes. Preston's friend, Denise (Lauren Ambrose), is trying to find some way to fit into a party that is obviously not her scene. An off-the wall weirdo named Kenny (Seth Green), who uses ebonics despite being white, is trying to lose his virginity. And a former graduate (Jerry O'Connell) has returned to bemoan his lack of success with college women.

What Can't Hardly Wait offers are flat characters stuck in underdeveloped situations. The only semi-interesting individual, Denise, is trapped in a bathroom with Kenny for most of the night. Of the film's dozen-or-so primary players, she's the only one who seems more like a real person than a caricature. As ably portrayed by Lauren Ambrose (who previously appeared as one of Kevin Kline's students in In & Out), Denise is capable of engaging our sympathies. Everyone else seems to exist for only one purpose -- to be at this party. It's virtually impossible to imagine anyone having any kind of life outside of these circumstances -- such shallow characters are obviously tailored to the needs of the script.

For those who enjoy saccharine romances, the interaction between Preston and Amanda offers some limited possibilities. You'd have to be hopelessly naïve not to realize how it's all going to turn out, but the two actors, Ethan Embry (That Thing You Do!) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (I Know What You Did Last Summer), are so likable that it's hard not to have at least a minor rooting interest in their pairing. Seeing the inevitable resolution is one of the few reasons to stay for the duration of Can't Hardly Wait's one-hundred minute running length.

Just like the teen movies of the '80s, Can't Hardly Wait is targeting the 13-to-18 year-old group by offering popular actors like Embry and Love Hewitt, wall-to-wall pop music (often, the film seems like nothing more than an excuse to sell a soundtrack), and ample portions of booze and sex (although the PG-13 rating limits the latter). It's all marketing -- collect enough appealing snippets for a 30-second TV commercial, and maybe the kids will come. With effectively-developed characters, decent dialogue, and something resembling a compelling plot, this approach can lead to a satisfying movie-going experience. Sadly, those characteristics are taking a vacation in Can't Hardly Wait. Whatever shallow charm the film offers wears off fast as we realize that it's not funny, endearing, dramatically sound, or going anywhere that we haven't been before. As a result, the title seems unexpectedly appropriate, as it accurately summed up my feelings about sitting in the theater and anticipating the arrival of the end credits -- I couldn't hardly wait.

Can't Hardly Wait (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1998-06-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1