I Love You, Beth Cooper -- Film Review

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It's always dangerous to introduce a movie character who loves to quote lines from classic movies; you're forcing the audience to make comparisons, which are unlikely to favor the movie they're watching.

In "I Love You, Beth Cooper" one of the teenage characters is a movie nerd constantly pontificating on some of his favorite flicks. During the course of his movie-mad monologues, Rich (Jack T. Carpenter) even conjures up a couple of memorable high school movies, "Risky Business" and "Dead Poets Society." How we wish we were watching those pictures instead of the dud on display here. Although the teenage audience is notoriously undiscriminating, it's hard to imagine many kids turning out for this laugh-free comedy.

Prodded by Rich, Denis (Paul Rust), the shy high school valedictorian, uses the occasion of his graduation speech to declare his love for Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), the head cheerleader who is way out of his league. Although Beth barely has been aware of his existence, she is (rather improbably) touched by his declaration, and over the course of the evening, she and her snooty best friends take Denis and Rich on a night of adventure, pursued by Beth's psychotic boyfriend, the school jock.

The movie written by Larry Doyle and directed by Chris Columbus recalls several earlier high school movies that took place over the course of a single day -- "American Graffiti," "The Breakfast Club" and "Superbad," to name just a few. Actually, Columbus' own directorial debut came on a comedy with a similar premise, "Adventures in Babysitting," a sweet, clever trifle that seems like "Citizen Kane" in comparison to "Beth Cooper."

Columbus went on to direct such huge hits as "Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and the first two "Harry Potter" movies, and somewhere along the way, he lost touch with recognizable human emotions. But it's hard to know whether the blame for this fiasco rests with Columbus or with Doyle, who originally wrote a novel based on his high school experiences and then turned it into a screenplay. Despite the claims of autobiographical authenticity, nothing seems fresh. Most of the scenes are stock teen crises that we've seen many times before: Underage kids trying to buy beer, getting into a car wreck, fighting off vicious bullies.

The actors can't do much with such a tired script. Rust doesn't really distinguish himself from a hundred other movie geeks, but Panettiere finds some warmth and even poignancy in her character. If the movie were worth stealing, it would be stolen by Carpenter. He brings some panache to the picture, though Rich's struggle to decide whether he's gay is a running gag far less rewarding than the filmmakers realize.

The film was shot mainly around Vancouver, doubling for Tacoma, Wash., and Columbus has enough experience to serve up a handsome production. Some of the stunt work is impressive, but a comedy cries out for smart jokes rather than convincing fight scenes.

Opens: Friday, July 10 (Fox)