Blessed with a good-size beak -- I have one too, so I can say this -- Paul Rust seems like promising casting in the role of the brainy but socially maladroit geek at the center of " I Love You, Beth Cooper." But a funny thing happened to Larry Doyle's 2007 debut novel on the way to the multiplex. It turned into its own ring of coming-of-age comedy hell.
The film adaptation comes from director Chris Columbus, working from a screenplay written by Doyle (a "Simpsons" alum, which only adds to the mystery). Originally set among freaks, geeks, jocks and cheerleaders of the Chicago area's Buffalo Grove High School, the story has been relocated to Washington state, because Washington state is close to Canada, and Canada's a cheaper place to make a movie.
At the urging of his best friend, Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter), whose sexuality remains a multiple-choice question, class valedictorian and debate-club prez Denis Cooverman (Rust) spills his guts during his commencement speech, telling the entire school that he's in love with cheerleader Beth Cooper ( Hayden Panettiere).
Denis and Rich spend a wild, dangerous night with Beth and her equally shrill and callous friends (Lauren London and Lauren Storm). They drink, they run afoul of Beth's psycho-bully boyfriend, an Army man all hopped up on cocaine. (His comrade in thuggery, we're told, makes the mistake of "getting all date-rape-y" with one of Beth's friends.) Property is destroyed, Denis gets kicked in the face a lot, lessons are learned, and following the strict precepts as taught by John Hughes in the 1980s, the mask of stereotype is periodically lowered to reveal the aching, sincere Real Person underneath.
"I Love You, Beth Cooper" provides so few laughs, I nearly wandered out of the theater midway to go look for some somewhere. Columbus strains to set up such sight gags as Denis shooting a champagne cork into his own face. You may wince, just as you may wince when Denis gets hit by a car, but it's not a ha-ha wince. Both as written and acted, Denis quickly becomes a tedious motormouth, not helped by Columbus' uncertain pacing, with big, blobby pauses clogging up the plot machinery.
If your teens express an interest in seeing this movie, make sure they see "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" too, as a sort of antidote. Both are wish-fulfillment fables spanning 24 hours. One is sweet, relaxed and amusing; the other is a soul-crusher. I'm serious. My soul was crushed by "I Love You, Beth Cooper" and now it's all wrinkly and it'll stay that way at least until I get another look at "Adventureland," this year's reminder that not all American coming-of-age pictures have to be lousy.
'I Love You, Beth Cooper'
Paul Rust and Hayden Panettiere in 'I Love You, Beth Cooper'
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