Saturday, July 18, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper

Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Larry Doyle
Starring Hayden Panettiere, Paul Rust, and Jack Carpenter

In my review of Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince I noted that the only thing that hurt that impressive film was the fidelity to the smallest details of the source material. The makers of that film had the emotions, themes, and strength of the source material, they just tried to fit in too many of the details. In the case of I Love You, Beth Cooper, the cast and director didn't even bother with the emotions and themes of the source material they just went for the details. 

Director Chris Columbus and most of the cast members are to blame for the failure to create a funny, entertaining, and intelligent adaptation of Larry Doyle's novel of the same name. Doyle also wrote the screenplay for this film and follows his novel quite closely. I can't blame him for the failure because the wit, characters, and story are all pretty strong in the film. They are just hidden beneath bland direction and weak performances.

The novel is not a classic and the story is nothing groundbreaking, it's a simple story of what happens after "nerdy" student Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) takes the advice of his best friend Rich Munsch, (Jack Carpenter) and uses his graduation speech to declare his long time love for Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). Later that night she takes him on the adventure of his young life. The entire story is contained within a 24 hour time frame. 

As I mentioned it is a pretty simple story which certainly invokes the spirit of American GraffitiDazed and Confused, and Superbad.  These films have an energy to them that comes from playing up the almost mythological aspects of teenage years. We have all been there and have felt that excitement that comes from being young and feeling like your whole life is ahead of you. I remember feeling like any given night of my 17th year could change my whole life. That girl that I secretly loved would suddenly feel the same way after a dance at the prom. Yes, these films have that energy but they are grounded in the reality of what actually happens. 

Unlike those films this one contains almost none of that excitement. All the big teenage moments in this film feel like "movie" moments. There is very little truth to them and as a result they completely fail to bring on any emotion. It feels like there is a great distance between the intent of the lines as written and the way the actors deliver them. 

Beth Cooper is suppose to be the girl of Denis' dreams but in Panettiere's performance I could not find a reason as to why. She doesn't know how to deliver the lines from Doyle's script. They are clearly written to deconstruct Denis' perfect vision of Beth but instead she reads them as if Beth Cooper was nothing more than a bitch. The character is written to have multiple layers and a sort of awareness that her best days are behind her. There is none of that in the performance just in the lines of the screenplay. 

Beth's two best friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm) are supporting characters but have been given a great deal to work with even it isn't delivered. Cammy tells Rich that she plans on going to college to study acting. Upon hearing this Rich asks her why she didn't ever try out for any of the school plays to which she replies, "social preservation". This is a character that chose her desire to be popular over the desires of her heart. Either London wasn't given the direction to explore this side of the character or she doesn't have the talent. Either way the blame rest squarely on the shoulders of Chris Columbus. 

The same goes for the character of Treece who takes the whole gang to her father's cabin in the woods. The cabin exists for the sole purpose of her father's extramarital affairs. This is made clear when Treece tells everybody that she can go there whenever she wants as long as she doesn't tell her mom where the cabin is located. So when she later finds a mug that says, "World's Greatest Dad," and she remarks that she didn't buy it for him there should be a little pain and confusion in her line reading. Instead, Columbus and Storm play it up for laughs by having her deliver it as a ditzy remark. 

While these actresses deserve same blame for these poor performance there is evidence that the blame rests on Columbus and him alone. That evidence is in the character of Rich. Rich constantly quotes movie and then cites the director and release date. He also speaks in broken Spanish to make himself feel interesting all the while fighting the perceived notion that he is gay. Carpenter is able to give this character some dimension within Columbus' direction. In one scene we realize that Rich's dad doesn't like him at all, in fact upon graduation he gives him an invoice for how much he owes for his upbringing. After explaining the laborious details of the invoice to Denis Rich remarks, "I didn't think he paid that much attention to me." Again, Columbus wants to play this line for a joke but Carpenter seems to understand the pain within the joke. He is able to communicate that pain to the audience before the film moves on to some sophomoric gag.

I question whether or not Chris Columbus knows how to communicate authentic emotions on film. All his jokes fall flat as they rely too heavily on outlandish physical comedy. As mentioned all the moments that are meant to give insight into the characters are missed opportunities. The man was able to establish his career by directing  the first two Home Alone movies (the first of which was written by John Hughes) and was lucky enough two direct the first two Harry Potter films (based on his promise to JK Rowling that he would cast all British actors). He also directed Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and Bicentennial Man and took the Broadway hit Rent from the stage to the screen. Looking at his past films it is clear that he has built his career by either working with can't miss franchises or heading star vehicles.  When given an intelligent and entertaining screenplay he can't deliver. Based on what I saw in this film he tried to rely on sight gags and how "hot" Hayden Panettiere looks. 

Had the director paid more attention to the screenplay he might have succeeded in making a funny and touching film. Perhaps in the hands of a more talented director this film could have held a candle to some of the great high school films. In the end it is a failure.

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