Bitter experience has taught me that any summer romantic comedy aimed at teens already has two strikes against it. If, however, you go into "I Love You, Beth Cooper" with zero expectations, it's not half bad. It's directed by the terminally workmanlike Chris Columbus, but the script by Larry Doyle, based on his novel, has some smart flashes, and a few of the young performers resemble real people and not the usual prefab teen idols.
The premise is a good one. Instead of spouting the usual boring homilies, geeky high school class valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust), urged on by his best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), uses the occasion of his senior graduation address to proclaim his years-long crush on fellow classmate and head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), who of course doesn't know he exists.
Taken aback, but also intrigued by his ardor, Beth slowly warms to him as day passes into night. She is flanked by her two best friends, cheerleaders Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm). Together they form a trinity right out of "Mean Girls." Except their meanness burns off rather quickly. You see, this is a movie about locating the inner sweetness in all of us. Sometimes a cheerleader is more than a cheerleader. (Isn't it about time somebody organized an antidefamation league for cheerleaders?)
In case you haven't been paying attention, just about every young adult comedy, no matter how raunchy, comes equipped these days with a handy moral message. From "Knocked Up" through "Adventureland" and beyond, peace, love, and understanding rule the day. Traditionalism is in. Catting around is out. Doing right by your partner is applauded.
In "Beth Cooper," it doesn't take us long to figure out that Beth is more than a bimbo. Or to put it another way, she's a bimbo with heart. She's drawn to Denis because he adores her for who she is rather than (or in addition to) how she looks. This is in contrast to her beefcake boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), a military wacko who, with his two wacko cohorts, repeatedly hounds Denis in an attempt to humiliate him and get Beth back.
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.
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.)