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Review: 'I Love You, Beth Cooper'

Romantic comedy for teens has fresh twist and new acting find Paul Rust.

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Because the film is set in Tacoma, Wash. (actually shot in Vancouver), the settings are unnaturally lush and woodsy for a teen genre pic. When Denis and Rich and the three girls are crammed into a Cabriolet whooshing through nighttime rural byways, you can taste the minty freshness in the air. Their sense of freedom, of leaving high school behind, is palpable.

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However, I wish the filmmakers hadn't turned Beth's dreadful driving skills and her jokey penchant for turning off the headlights at night into a big fat joke. They also play for laughs a scene where she accidentally drives smack into Denis. Not only does he survive, but he is able to laugh it off. Using characters as human crash dummies is not exactly the height of comic inspiration, especially in a movie that is pushing sweetness over sinew.

Doyle has been a writer and a producer for "The Simpsons" and written some very funny humor pieces for The New Yorker. He must be the main reason this film is better than it has any right to be. Whenever "Beth Cooper" is in "Mean Girls" mode, whenever it resorts to standard-issue beer blast hijinks, it's routine and derivative. And Panettiere, from TV's "Heroes," is rather vapid – as opposed to playing vapid. But Rust and Carpenter work extremely well together, and Doyle has supplied them with some wonderful byplay. One of the film's running gags – that Rich is gay but won't admit, even to himself, what everybody knows – is uncommonly heartfelt because of the way the actors handle the situation. In most movies you have to take for granted that the buddies really are buddies. Not here.

Rust, in particular, is a real find. In his first starring role, he shows off the crack timing of a seasoned pro. Although he's a smitten geek, Denis is also a Stanford-bound premed whose head, Beth aside, is screwed on pretty straight. He's a go-getter. If Rust reminds you a bit of the young Woody Allen, it's because Allen, despite his dweeby, goofy veneer, was a go-getter, too – a rascal.

It's too bad "Beth Cooper" isn't even better. Doyle dumbs down his wit in a way he wouldn't do for, say, The New Yorker. With a little more tang and integrity, this film might have been another "Say Anything." But with any luck, Rust, who already has several films in the can, including the new Quentin Tarantino movie, will become the Woody Allen or John Cusack or Dustin Hoffman – take your pick – of his generation. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence.)