DVD Review: I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009)

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Chances are as I sit here typing these words and whether it's a few kids playing with a Mini-DV Cam, in a screenwriting course, or in the luxurious conference rooms of a Hollywood studio, someone in America is pitching an idea to someone else. Yet instead of just telling the story in a straightforward or succinct few sentences, it's safe to assume that the filmmakers are conveying their respective opuses by using what has now become the industry standard lingo of “it's like (insert movie title one) meets (insert title number two).”

However, to avoid too much cookie cutter copying-- a delicate art since financiers and audiences like comfortable familiarity but not something we've seen eight million times in our lifetime-- every once in awhile the pitch artist will employ a variation of this idea. And from time served in screenwriting courses, film school, and with press release pitches, I've discovered that-- just like the Golden Globes' decision to lump everything into either a comedy or a drama category-- this technique usually shows up in one of two ways.

Basically, either more titles are added into the pitch as though one was building a Lego train on the floor with their children and hooking up additional cars or that same theoretical train is decoupled altogether with some bizarre twist like, “but it's set at a circus,” or “but funnier,” or “but with (insert name of any above the line A-list talent you've got in your toy box).”

From pitch to finished production, the adaptation of Larry Doyle's own young adult novel I Love You, Beth Cooper from John Hughes protege and blockbuster director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting, Harry Potter 1and 2, Rent) essentially combined every single aforementioned variation of the simple one film meets another movie equation.

By Doyle's own admission, Beth Cooper uses not just the obvious influences of wrong-side-of-the-tracks and/or cliques comedies like John Hughes' Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Offplus Cameron Crowe's poetic love story Say Anything... as its building blocks but in fact, borrowed heavily from “every coming-of-age” book or movie Doyle had experienced in his lifetime. Likewise, by collaborating alongside a John Hughes era veteran like Chris Columbus and also giving our favorite '80s hypochondriac with daddy issues, Ferris Bueller's best friend Cameron Frye (actor Alan Ruck) a strong role as our geeky protagonist's father, Doyle's tale that had originally been inspired by a dream nearly crashes from its own ambitious weight.

Applying the same tried and true cliché of the last night of high school and the prospect of seizing the moment to try and break through the social class barriers now that graduation has demolished the cliques altogether, the movie opens in a simple yet startling way. Echoing the title and prompted by his perpetually movie quoting friend Rich (Jack Carpenter) who's still hiding in the closet to the point that even he is unaware he's "closeted," our affable lead Denis (Inglourious Basterds' Paul Rust) delivers his valedictorian speech but deviates from canned nostalgic sentiment to urge everyone to “come out” of whatever closets they're in as well when he tells the most beautiful girl in school, “I love you, Beth Cooper.”

Initially setting itself up to be a gender flip of Say Anything..., She's All Thator any number of smart girls with the odd guy movies, this time around Hayden Panettiere's cheerleader (not of Heroesfame) is the clueless blonde Molly Ringwald whom we just know is probably Ally Sheedy deep down. Or at least, for Denis's sake, we want her to be especially when she brings two foxy friends over to what Denis swears is a party. However, these girls definitely know a real party from a fake one so just as they're beginning to tire from Denis's father's champagne and condom-balloons with no other guests in attendance, Beth's insanely jealous military boyfriend tracks her location on her cell phone and becomes the film's version of Robert Patrick's Terminator from Judgment Day.

Weirdly cavalier about plot details like serious drug abuse, possible attempted date rape, and the death of a sibling, the film's immense promise begins to fade as they go on the run from one crazy adventure to the next. Thankfully not as crass as American Pieyet nowhere near as sharp as the Hughes pictures, Say Anything... or last year's underrated Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the movie is a benign diversion that doesn't challenge us one bit.

Still, when you take into consideration that most teen movies are cheesy horror remakes, I'm just fine with the existence of another formulaic work of chicken soup for the teenage soul, where characters impressively do share their feelings with each other instead of body parts with inanimate objects as was the case in the endless plates of Pie.

Wisely deciding to avoid an outright teen comedy spoof lest the movie venture into Wayans Brothers territory a la Not Another Teen Movie, Doyle decided instead to take a subtler approach in working in the overused elements he'd encountered incessantly in the genre like the camera convention of slow-motion when introducing "the girl." However, the technical details not purposely drawn out in the script are all in the hands of Columbus. And while he is obviously well at home in the terrain of the script, unfortunately the film's over-the-top and frankly violent slapstick antics go to outrageously unlikable extremes.

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While it's evident throughout the film, it's doubly so when you see what Fox deservedly dubbed the movie's “outrageous alternate ending” which moves into seriously twisted territory as the older military bullies (not the most convenient time to have villainous army men) arrive to nearly pummel our protagonist to death. It's scenes like this deleted one and others that occur within the first 30 minutes that make you realize just how many wrong turns we've taken since John Hughes' Golden Age of Teen Comedies in the '80s. While it does maneuver back on course enough to make us smile here and there, Beth abandons its grandest influence of Say Anything... while threatening to become “Home Alone: Kevin's Graduation,” as though Columbus is the over-the-hill son still sleeping in his childhood bedroom who's just desperate to break free altogether.

Basically, it's best when simply scoring the easy two point baskets instead of trying to change the lineup so much that it calls unfortunate attention to itself for all the wrong reasons. And while you're not going to come away from Beth Cooper with anything new, nor most likely buy the syrupy ending, I must give Doyle credit for his astute insertion of mature questions as Panettiere makes the most of her underwritten role. Although she isn't as endearing as she was in Shanghai Kiss, she's a thoughtful presence and goes beyond the surface of "the girl" for a few Almost Famous Penny Lane inspired moments as we catch her wondering where a cheerleader without the grades or financial aid goes from there when high school was her royal court and that within graduation lies goodbye.

While thankfully for Doyle, the movie's title will ensure it remains memorable for the premise alone, to those who were neither revered nor reviled in high school, you'll probably view Cooper in the same way as high school as neither good nor bad, with a few fond memories, a few cringes, and a feeble promise to stay in touch over the summer.

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FTC Disclaimer: Per standard critical practice, I received a review copy of the film to evaluate.