Way back in 1987, Chris Columbus made a surprisingly good teen comedy, Adventures in Babysitting. The movie was Columbus’ first directorial effort, and it had a smart, sweet script by TV scribe David Simkins, whose career has otherwise mostly been limited to TV. The film also had an appealing, engaging cast that included Elisabeth Shue, Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp, Calvin Levels and Penelope Ann Miller. In addition to the appealing players, the movie had a wild sense of invention where you never knew where it would go next. Columbus graduated from this to bigger, but rarely better work. (Let’s face it, even his two Harry Potter movies are little more than workmanlike in terms of direction.) Well, with I Love You, Beth Cooper, Columbus returns to his roots—even to the point of duplicating several of the basics of Babysitting—and the results are depressing.
The cast members of I Love You, Beth Cooper are sadly lacking in charisma; they’re not even much in the way of being likable. And the only surprise you’re likely to find is the disheartening one of being shocked that the film isn’t over yet at several points. I checked my phone’s clock four times in disbelief that the story hadn’t wandered around to its conclusion.
What you have is a movie with a fairly amusing starting point—nerdy Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) blurts out that he loves Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere) in his class valedictorian speech—and then spends the rest of its time in search of laughs and perceptions that almost never materialize. If the film has one point to make it’s that for some people high school will be the pinnacle of life. It finally gets around to making that point (by which time you probably won’t care), only to turn around and forget it.
There’s virtually nothing about Beth Cooper that works, even though all the clichés for a John Hughes knockoff are duly inserted. Place a lot of the blame on the two stars. Though I’m unfamiliar with Hayden Panettiere’s most famous work in the TV series Heroes, I know I’ve seen her on several previous occasions—none of which I found memorable enough to remember her. I doubt this movie is going to change that. Paul Rust, on the other hand, I have never seen before. It seems improbable that I could have forgotten this Ichabod Crane incarnate had I encountered him on the screen. Apart from the fact that he’s way too old to be believable as a high-school senior (this is the movies and you kind of expect that), he’s simply not appealing. Even granting that the screenplay gives neither performer much to work with, I’m unconvinced that either is actually capable of carrying a film.
Somewhat better—and better served—is Jack T. Carpenter as Rich, Denis’ best friend, a genial nerd who rattles off directors, cast lists and release years of movies at the drop of a hat, which the movie sets up as an indicator that he’s probably gay. Setting aside the plot’s notion that it’s OK for Denis to out Rich in his graduation speech, Rich is a more appealing character than either of the leads. He’s at least genuinely quirky and has more characterization than Denis, whose entire raison d’être is mooning over his idea of Beth Cooper. It also helps that Carpenter can play 18.
The rest of the characters are purest cardboard, and it was probably a truly awful idea to cast Alan Ruck as Denis’ father. Ruck is so inextricably linked to the character of Cameron Frye in John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) that having him pop up in a teen comedy like this is only going to underscore just how much better the older movie was than this. When you’re making I Love You, Beth Cooper, the last thing you should do is invoke another move. Chances are excellent that such a move will not make for a comparison in your favor.
All the same, I can’t say I actually hated Beth Cooper. The problem is that I don’t feel much of anything about it and will quickly forget that this completely negligible movie even exists. Considering that the movie opened at number seven with a lackluster $5 million take and is about to be steamrolled into oblivion by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I’m probably not alone. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence.