Chris Columbus made his directorial debut 22 years ago with Adventures in Babysitting, a funny high school comedy that benefited from the extremely hot Elisabeth Shue and the underrated comedic timing of Keith Coogan. (He ruled! Where is that guy?) With I Love You, Beth Cooper, Columbus tries to revisit his debut-film glory days ... and fails. Miserably.
Instead, Columbus directs like a dweeb uncle crashing his nephew's high school party, cracking shitty jokes he thinks are funny while the room stares at him all glassy-eyed and quiet. With this plodding effort, he proves himself woefully out of touch.
The film starts promisingly, with valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) bringing his graduation ceremony to a halt with a barn-burning speech. Not only does he declare his love for the class hottie, Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere); he outs his best friend, Rich (Jack Carpenter), announces the root cause of the high school bully's adolescent angst, and slams Beth's college boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts), as a creepy guy who can't get an adult girlfriend.
While this looks like the basis for a fresh, zippy high school comedy, things go quickly downhill once Denis leaves the podium.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that Columbus can't time a joke to save his life. Moments that are supposed to be funny (and could've been funny) are dragged out to the point of tedium. It doesn't help that just about every character in the film devolves into a tired cliché.
It's one thing to throw some politically incorrect humor into the mix, but that sort of thing has to be carefully done. One wrong step, and you enter into awkward territory, which this film does many, many times. When the high school bully confesses that he's mean because he was sexually abused, it's not funny; it's cringe-worthy. When he hugged Denis and started singing, I wanted to crawl under my theater seat. Actually, I wanted to crawl under my theater seat and then burrow through the floor. With the help of a small shovel or something, I would then tunnel under the theater and make my way out into the safety of the parking lot. Yes, I could just get up and leave, but critics aren't supposed to do that.
The film's biggest running joke is Rich's closeted homosexuality, a topic it handles with the grace of a giraffe on barbiturates. At one point, Denis is fighting roid-raging Kevin in his bedroom, while Rich hides in the closet. Can you guess what Denis yells when he needs Rich to come to his assistance? Somebody got paid to write this shit.
Panettiere is an effervescent presence, but Columbus and his crew don't know what to do to make Beth memorable. So they make her a crazy-bad driver and somebody willing to make out with a convenience-store clerk to get beer. (Guffaw! GUFFAW! SNORT!) In the end, she's just a lame amalgam of the high school hot-girl characters from every movie dealing with the subject since Fast Times at Ridgemont High, minus the funny.
Admittedly, it's cool to see Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as Denis' dad. Ruck gets a couple of OK scenes, but he spends most of the movie's time on a side road making out with his movie wife in a car.
As for Rust, I found his acting abrasive and overreaching. The same can be said for Carpenter, who doesn't seem to understand that sidekicks are supposed to be tolerable individuals, and not annoying beyond redemption.
In the end, what we get with I Love You, Beth Cooper is the sort of stuff that would make John Hughes turn over in his grave. Oh wait, Hughes isn't dead yet. Where is that bastard? Will somebody get that man out of retirement, offer him lots of dough and get a decent high school comedy up on the screen?!