I Love You Beth CooperReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/10/09 00:13:37
We are more or less at the halfway point of the Summer 2009 moviegoing season and while it hasn’t exactly been a bounty of riches in general, it has been extremely slim pickings for viewers in the mood for a comedy to take their minds of the troubles of the world. Take away such rare exceptions as Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” (which is nowhere near his best work but better than the majority of his recent output) and Sam Raimi’s splatstick gem “Drag Me to Hell” (which works as well as gruesome comedy as it does as gruesome horror) and you are left with a lot of loud and mirthless duds with hardly a laugh or a point on display. A few weeks ago, there was the astoundingly overrated “The Hangover,” a film to which I could find only two genuine laughs (three, if you count Warner Brothers’ unrelenting attempts this widely pre-screened and heavily publicized project as some kind of grassroots sleeper hit), one of which depended on the crack comic timing of none other than Mike Tyson. At the time when I reviewed that one, I genuinely expected that it would be the weakest comedy of the summer and was therefore appalled to encounter “Year One” a couple of weeks later and discover that it contained only one funny scene--an especially disappointing revelation when you consider that the guiding light behind it, Harold Ramis, was responsible for some of the funniest films of my generation. As I staggered out of the screening of that particular gumdrop, I was at least content in the knowledge that there presumably could not be a less funny film on tap for the season than that one. Well, in news that will presumably cheer Ramis and Ramis alone, I have seen the future of comedy hell and it is named “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” a creepy, deeply unpleasant and decidedly unfunny teen comedy that goes on for about 90-odd minutes and inspires nary a laugh, chuckle or guffaw. This is bad enough but what is even worse is that it seems to be under the delusion that it is some kind of groundbreaking teen comedy along the lines of “Risky Business,” “Heathers” or the various Eighties offerings of John Hughes--not only does it fail to measure up to those standards, there is a very good chance that it would lose in a face-off against the likes of “Fired Up.”As the film opens, uber-nerd Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is about to give a high school valedictory address summing up four years in which he barely seemed to exist to most of his classmates, least of all to gorgeous head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). Encouraged to seize the moment by his equally nerdy/possibly gay best pal, Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), Denis uses his speech as a way to blurt out his love for Beth in front of her, their classmates, his parents (Alan Ruck and Cynthia Stevenson) and, perhaps inevitably, Beth’s boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), a drugged-out military meathead/ who threatens to literally kill him the next time they meet. (Imagine a less nuanced version of the Bill Paxton character from “Weird Science” and you have the general idea.) Although more or less embarrassed by the entire incident, Beth is inexplicably charmed by Denis’ gesture and later that day, she unexpectedly arrives at his house with her two best generic girlfriends--a black one (Lauren London) and a slutty one (Lauren Storm)--for the party that he and Rich are throwing. Of course, it is only the five of them for a while but before long, Kevin and his buddies show up to administer brutal beatings to Denis and Rich until they manage to escape with the girls. Thus begins one long night of wackiness involving wild parties, cow tipping, reckless driving, co-ed showers and other hi-jinks that force Denis to finally confront the real Beth Cooper, not just the idealized vision that has been playing front and center in his daydreams for years. Of course, whenever things get too serious (which isn’t that often) or drag to a halt (which is), the goon boyfriend reliably materializes to administer violence of such brutality that it almost feels as if Walter Hill was inexplicably hired to direct.
Of course, if Hill had been hired to direct “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” the results might have at least been interesting, to say the least. Instead, the film has been entrusted to Chris Columbus, a man whose directorial vision has inspired many descriptive words, though “interesting” has never been one of them. Actually, the most interesting thing about the film is that he is directing it in the first place. Twenty-odd years ago, he kicked off his directorial career with “Adventures in Babysitting,” a fairly appalling and borderline racist John Hughes knockoff whose message seemed to be to warn suburban kids that if they made the mistake of venturing into a city, they ran the risk of being killed or--possibly even worse--being exposed to Negroes, a notion so odious that not even the opening sequence of Elisabeth Shue humping her bedpost to the tune of the greatest song ever recorded, “Then He Kissed Me,” could make up for what was to come. From there, he went on to a number of hits, first working for Hughes himself on the first two “Home Alone” films and then as the lucky bastard hired to direct the first two “Harry Potter” films, and occasional flops like “Bicentennial Man“ and the misbegotten screen version of “Rent.” (The Potter films remain his best work to date but seen today, they are easily the least interesting in the franchise because of the way they slavishly clung to the books instead of showing the directorial vision of the later installments.) Now he has returned to the wacky teen comedy that he began his career with and the question that immediately comes to mind is “Why?” If he thought it would be fun to return to the genre that gave him his start or that he had anything new to say about it, that is anything but the case. If anything, this could well be the worst-directed project of his entire career--there is no comedic rhythm on display, the jokes are as ugly as the visuals and the whole thing has a creepy and nasty undercurrent that kills nearly every gag. (Of course, if your idea of humor is someone slicing their hand on a champagne bottle and spurting amounts of blood normally found only within the confines of a Peckinpah retrospective, feel free to disagree.)
The film was based on a book by Larry Doyle, who also wrote the screenplay, and while I have not read it myself, I have talked to a couple of people who have and they have told me that while the basic storyline of both versions is pretty much the same, the tone is completely different. From what I have been told, the book is more of a satire of wacky teen comedies that utilized the conventions of the genre in order to subvert them by pointing out their inherent silliness. For the film, however, it seems as though that satirical level must have been the very first thing to go because there is no such commentary on display anywhere. Instead of spoofing the conventions of the genre--property damage that no one seems to notice, out-of-nowhere heartfelt confessions designed solely to get us to like the characters more, teen parties that would give even Hugh Hefner pause and the utter lack of minorities outside of the role of sidekick--“I Love You, Beth Cooper” embraces them wholeheartedly and as a result, what once may have been a wicked skewering of the last 25 years of bad teen comedies becomes just another bad teen comedy. Actually, make that an atrocious teen comedy because not only is the story completely off-putting, so are the characters. As Denis, Paul Rust is more creepy than charming and Hayden Panettiere is such a lifeless bore throughout that I assumed for most of the running time that this was part of the point of the film--that Beth was nothing special when seen for who she really was--until I finally realized that no, it was just her. As for the others, the only one who makes any sort of impression is Jack Carpenter as the best pal and that is only because he is so irritating throughout (his quirk, besides constantly denying that he is gay, is to constantly quote movie lines while citing their sources) that you pretty much want to punch him every time he comes on screen.“I Love You, Beth Cooper” is such a vile and rotten slice of low-brow stupidity that I don’t even want to spend any time on a concluding paragraph summing up all of its sins because to do so would involve intellectual effort on my part than was evidently expended on making it in the first place. It isn’t funny, it isn’t thoughtful, it isn’t caustic and it isn’t even creatively raunchy--you get the sense throughout that a lot of material hit the cutting room floor in order to get the more commercially viable PG-13. (This is especially ironic when you consider that the majority of the audience for its opening weekend is probably going to consist of kids who buy tickets to see it and then sneak in to watch “Bruno” instead.) Frankly, every single person involved with the making of this film and every single person who actually pays money to go and see it should be sentenced to watch “Dazed and Confused” at least once a day for an entire month so that they can see what a smart and perceptive film on this subject actually looks like. Of course, one could argue that this would be too good for them but trust me, there are very few things out there that are actually worse from a comedic standpoint than “I Love You, Beth Cooper” for them to experience--at least I hope so.
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