Columbus Doesn't Discover Subtlety 

I-Love-You-Beth-Cooper-1.jpg

I Love You, Beth Cooper
Directed by Chris Columbus

Larry Doyle's novel I Love You, Beth Cooper is hilarious, refreshing entertainment. Chris Columbus's film by the same name follows the same notes — Doyle, a former Simpsons staffer, wrote the script himself — in the wrong key. When valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) declares his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere) early in the film, there's a sense of perverse triumph that matches the book's combination of cynicism and hope. Much of the rest of the film version — following the one-crazy-teenage-night template that worked so well for Dazed and Confused and Superbad — cruises downhill from there.

Though chockablock with purportedly wacky incident, the real pleasure of the book lies in Doyle's deadpan backstories and digressions, the matter-of-fact branching that turns a twenty-four-hour story into a rapid-fire and often hilarious history of its characters' high school careers. Doyle the screenwriter tries to externalize the comedy a bit more, with just a few flashbacks and no third-person intrusions; Columbus, as ever, wants to amplify comic moments with cartoonish broadness. After Denis shares his secret love for Beth, for example, he's pursued by her enormous, drug-addled military boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), and whenever he appears, Columbus can't resist the studio-hack curlicues of impossible physical feats (a microwave denting a wall far enough to stick in?), blown-up sound effects, and wacky-looking runs. Some of it is faintly amusing in a slapsticky sort of way, but playing the whole thing straight — real anger, real danger, like a deadpan horror film — could've been more fun, exactly the kind of fun Columbus doesn't trust his audience to have on their own.

Even with an entire movie's worth of Columbus miscues, I Love You, Beth Cooper ekes out some laughs and even a little poignancy, mostly due to the actors latching on to what remains of the material. Hayden Panettiere, she of the bombastic Heroes and ridiculous reggae-tinged debut single, makes a surprisingly effective damaged babe, effectively navigating Beth's extremely tentative appreciation of Denis. Paul Rust looks about a decade too old to play a high school senior, but his dorkishness feels genuine; gangly and big-nosed in a rugby shirt, he's not a cute model out of a Fashionable Nerd catalogue, and his relationship with maybe-gay best buddy Rich (Jack Carpenter) has real affection. But even as the characters maintain a believable sweetness, Columbus is there to dunk the quiet moments in a twinkly score, in case we don't understand when he's switched from raucous to poignant. We know, Chris. You always let us know.

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