The vengeance in the bloodthirsty title for "John Tucker Must Die" refers to social "death," or extreme embarrassment, rather than physical demise. In high school, of course, they can feel essentially the same.
As the antihero, the aforementioned John Tucker (played by Jesse Metcalfe, the underage gardener from "Desperate Housewives") is targeted for social annihilation after each of his three girlfriends discovers she's not alone in falling for the basketball star's considerable charms. And, apparently, the worst thing you can do to a Big Man on Campus like Tucker is make him behave like a girl.
So much for girl power.
While kudos are due for director Betty Thomas and screenwriter Jeff Lowell for making John Tucker's fictional high school a virtual U.N. of multiculturalism, they've no reason to be proud of the way they handle gender issues. It's enormously discouraging (especially given the film's "you go, girl" window dressing) that John Tucker's most "humiliating" episodes are linked to him behaving "like a girl" (i.e., talking about his feelings, obsessing about his thighs, crying for no apparent reason). Oh, the hilarity.
That caveat aside, "John Tucker Must Die" is reasonably entertaining. It boasts admirable self-awareness and a higher-than-average cultural IQ: This may mark the first movie reference to Dave "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" Eggers.
The film also has a highly distracting soundtrack, which is not only unnecessarily loud, but it also rather unforgivably cannibalizes the classics its target audience has probably never heard ("50 Ways to Leave Your Lover") as well as newer hits ("Float On").
The girls who are out to destroy John Tucker's life are meant to represent a cross-section of high school society — the superachiever (played by Arielle Kebbel), the head cheerleader (R&B singer Ashanti). and the free-love hippie chick (Sophia Bush) — but they're all pretty much the same: popular, gorgeous and disdainful of newcomers. That's bad news for Kate (the amiable but perplexed-looking Brittany Snow, late of NBC's "American Dreams"), who, like most high school students, is desperate for approval, friendship and a sense of belonging. Unlike most high school students, she actually finds all three.
Sadly, the path to social acceptance never did run smoothly. Initial attempts to discredit, embarrass or otherwise tarnish the iconic Tucker are spectacularly unsuccessful until Kate steps in to bring him down. This allows the introduction of another high school movie chestnut: that the theoretically "unpopular" or "unattractive" kids are, in fact, perfectly attractive, which becomes evident to everyone only after they undergo a mind-blowing transformation (removing glasses and/or plumping cleavage).
Despite its shortcomings, "John Tucker" isn't a terrible movie. It just isn't terribly funny or interesting, although I suspect that its intended audience won't mind very much. And in its defense, it's far less predictable and insulting than the majority of teen movies released in recent years.
And that, at the very least, is a step in the right direction.
'John Tucker Must Die'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language
A 20th Century Fox release. Director Betty Thomas. Screenplay Jeff Lowell. Producers Bob Cooper, Michael Birnbaum. Director of photography Anthony B. Richmond. Editor Matthew Friedman. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times