'Behaving Badly': Film Review

Tasteless teenage sex romp.

Selena Gomez plays a straitlaced high-school student in this cheerfully vulgar screwball comedy, which features a very brief cameo by her sometimes squeeze Justin Bieber.

Following her raunchy turn in Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez claws back most of her squeaky clean teen-queen image in Behaving Badly, a clumsy high-school sex comedy that tries too hard to be both shocking and endearing, falling short on both counts. Aside from a few lines of juicy bad language, Gomez plays the innocent in this fast-paced screwball farce, which is full of cheerful vulgarity but dangerously low on wit, charm or narrative logic.

Behaving Badly is freely adapted from Ric Browde's cult 2000 novel While I'm Dead... Feed The Dog, a darkly comic romp which reads like Catcher in the Rye crossed with Fight Club. First-time director Tim Garrick retains the book's bawdy and profane tone, but transplants it uneasily into a sunny high-school rom-com format. The result is a schizophrenic mess which aspires to be American Pie one minute and Heathers the next, never quite succeeding at either. Already released direct to DVD in some European markets, the film goes on limited theatrical release in the U.S. August 1, where box office interest will largely depend on brand loyalty towards Gomez and rising star Nat Wolff.

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An affable but bland leading man recently seen in the YA smash The Fault in Our Stars, Wolff stars as Rick Stevens, a geeky 17-year-old schoolboy predictably obsessed with getting laid, but also in love with his angelic dream-girl classmate Nina Pennington (Gomez). The main impetus behind the plot is Rick's ill-advised $1000 bet that he can get Nina into bed within a week, but this standard teen-movie premise is overloaded wild digressions and colorful side characters. In place of strong jokes, Garrick punctuates the action with random scenes of masturbation or vomiting which quickly lose their mild shock value and become tiresome.

Mary-Louise Parker plays dual roles as both Rick's alcoholic mother and fantasy guardian angel, while Elisabeth Shue gives good cougar as his best friend's mother, a glamorous sexual predator inexplicably keen to do a full Mrs Robinson on Rick's callow teenage body. Throw in corrupt clergymen, East European mobsters, a sleazy school principle, nuns and strippers and prostitutes and and – hey, presto! – the perfect recipe for a lukewarm, dated and slightly creepy sex comedy.

In his defense, Garrick attracts an impressively starry cast to his low-budget indie production, which was shot in just 20 days. Gomez gives the one-dimensional Nina an emotional maturity that deserves a better movie than this, while the veteran trio of Parker, Shue and Heather Graham all bring serious acting chops to overblown caricature roles. Meanwhile, Jason Lee hams it up as a crooked Catholic priest and Dylan McDermott lays it on thick as a sexually depraved strip joint boss. When the notoriously combustible Gary Busey's stunt-casting cameo as a police chief is the most understated performance in a movie, you know you are not in Kansas anymore.

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Shot in bright splashy colors, Behaving Badly is peppered with 1980s references, from its stock cast of high-school jocks and nerds to its overly intrusive soundtrack featuring mostly retro bands like The Cure and New Order. The subplot about a domestic lap dancing club is such a blatant steal from the early Tom Cruise hit Risky Business, it can only be a deliberate homage. Between loose ends and labored jokes, there are some agreeably goofy touches, including a tiny uncredited cameo by pop superstar Justin Bieber, Gomez's sometimes boyfriend.

But for all its quirky novelty appeal, the unpleasant odor of juvenile male fantasy hangs heavy over Behaving Badly. It is plain depressing to see award-winning talents like Parker and Shue reduced to playing desperate housewives and slavering nymphomaniacs, however much fun they make it appear. The film's lighthearted presentation of pedophilia, underage sex and drug rape is also problematic. Where South Park or Family Guy might approach such prickly topics with subversive wit, Garrick treats them as just another cheap gag opportunity. Ultimately less than the sum of its parts, this boorish comic caper leaves a slightly sour aftertaste.

Production companies: Voltage Pictures, Starboard Entertainment
Starring: Selena Gomez, Nat Wolff, Mary-Louise Parker, Elisabeth Shue, Jason Lee, Heather Graham, Dylan McDermott, Lachlan Buchanan
Director: Tim Garrick
Producers: Andrew Lazar, Miri Yoon
Writers: Tim Garrick, Scott Russell
Cinematographer: Mathew Rudenberg
Editor: Matt Friedman
Music: David Newman
Rated R, 93 minutes