John Tucker Must Die (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The gulf is vast between what the studio wants us to think John Tucker Must Die is and what it really is. The marketers and publicists would have us believe this is a dark, edgy teen comedy about a band of two-timed girls taking revenge on the school's biggest hunk. Unfortunately, Betty Thomas' film is neither dark nor edgy (although it occasionally tries masquerading in those categories), nor is it particularly funny. (Anything close to amusing can be found in the two-minute trailer.) Predictable and familiar, it feels during its best moments like the neutered offspring of Mean Girls and Can't Buy Me Love. But any goodwill the film builds up during its first 80 minutes evaporates in the last ten, when it resorts to moralizing and universal redemption. I know this is supposed to be a fantasy, but when I was in high school, my dreams never came complete with sermons.

John Tucker (Jesse Metcalf) is the most popular guy in school - as the saying goes: every girl wants him, and every boy wants to be him. He's a cross between a model and a Greek god, but John is about to learn the truth of the proverb that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. When John's three latest conquests - cheerleader Heather (Ashanti), animal rights activist Beth (Sophia Bush), and honors student Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) - learn that each of them is not his one and only, they vow revenge. Their plan: make him fall in love, then dump him. To help, they enlist the school's most unpopular girl, Kate (Brittany Snow), as his fake love connection. After remaking her into the perfect bait for John, they unleash him on the sports superstar. The results are pretty much what you'd expect: John starts seeing Kate as more than another notch in his belt, and Kate starts seeing John as more than an object of female vengeance.

I love movies in which 26-year-olds and 28-year-olds pretend they're still in high school. Who do they think they're fooling? In recent years, Hollywood has gotten away from that trend, casting performers who are close to the ages of their characters, but it makes a comeback in John Tucker Must Die. (Although these actors don't approach the absurdities of Grease, where 34-year-old Stockard Channing and 30-year-old Olivia Newton-John played teens.) The film also perpetuates the "ugly duckling" conceit: the character intended to be the least appealing is actually the most attractive. This is the case with Brittany Snow's Kate. No matter how far you're willing to go in your suspension of disbelief, it's tough to accept that Kate never gets asked out on dates.

Anyone who has followed Betty Thomas' career knows to approach John Tucker Must Die with skepticism. Thomas had couple of minor hits in the mid-1990s (Private Parts and The Brady Bunch Movie), but her resume is dominated by titles likely to make the average movie-goer wince. Dr. Dolittle. I Spy. 28 Days. John Tucker Must Die fits in with those uninspired titles, and that's not company any self-respecting motion picture with box office aspirations wants to keep.

The performances, mainly by second-tier actors trying to make the leap from television to movies, are perfunctory across-the-board. No one stands out as being especially good or bad and, as most people will acknowledge, nothing is more boring than mediocrity. The one surprise comes from Jenny McCarthy, the ex-Playmate who has a small part as Kate's mom. Although it was apparently written into her contract that someone has to comment how "hot" she is every time she exits a scene, McCarthy has never looked worse. She's only 33, but looks ten years older than that, and "worn out" is a better descriptor than "sexy."

The film's content is sufficiently tame for it to fall into the PG-13 category, but that's not a fundamental flaw. Mean Girls showed that an R isn't necessary for a film to possess bite, yet John Tucker Must Die is toothless. The jokes are obvious and unfunny, the storyline goes nowhere that's interesting or unexpected, and the only chemistry happens in a science lab. The movie may be able to bamboozle a few teen female fans into multiplexes, but it's hard to imagine any of them - even those who swoon at the sight of Jesse Metcalf - labeling this as better than forgettable. And for anyone outside that demographic unfortunate enough to endure John Tucker Must Die, the memory will be too painful to fade quickly.

John Tucker Must Die (United States, 2006)

Director: Betty Thomas
Cast: Jesse Metcalf, Brittany Snow, Ashanti, Sophia Bush, Arielle Kebbel, Penn Badgley, Jenny McCarthy
Screenplay: Jeff Lowell
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Richard Gibbs
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2006-07-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1