LOS ANGELES - Somewhere inside "I Love You, Beth Cooper," there lies a high-school comedy in the same vein as the great John Hughes movies of the 1980s.
Under the staggeringly mediocre direction of Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," the first two "Harry Potter" movies), it never springs to life.
All the pieces are in place: the nerdy guy, the popular girl, the quirky friends, the all-night adventures and the obligatory house-trashing bash. But the pacing feels stagnant and the antics simply aren't inventive enough.
There seemed to be potential from the start, too, in the script from Larry Doyle, based on his novel. Instead of spouting generic platitudes about chasing your dreams, geeky valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) uses his graduation speech as an opportunity to tell head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere) that he's secretly been in love with her since the seventh grade. He also gets some sly revenge on the kids who've tormented him his whole life by calling them out for their cruelties and insecurities.
The fact that this actually happens - that it's not just a dream sequence - signals the possibility for bold and surreal humor. And Rust has an endearing underdog goofiness about him without being too hyper or ingratiating. (The casting of Alan Ruck, Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," as Denis' dad is a nice throwback touch.) But the rest of the movie plays out rather flatly and predictably, as Beth finds herself intrigued by Denis and they bond over one wild night with their respective friends in tow. Car chases, nudity and many illegally procured beers ensue; the evening has its moments.
But a running joke involving the sexual orientation of Denis' sidekick Rich (Jack T. Carpenter) is never funny; neither is Rich's propensity for quoting famous lines from movies, along with the year they came out and the director. ("Say hello to my little friend," again? Really?) Beth's ditsy buddy Treece (Lauren Storm) gets some amusing lines, while the other member of the school-ruling trinity, Cammy (Lauren London), feels like an afterthought.
And then there is Beth Cooper herself. On paper, she's meant to be revealed as far less perfect than Denis had always imagined her. Beautiful and perky as she is, she probably peaked in high school, and there isn't a lot for her to look forward to - community college, maybe, if she can afford it. She's dating a 'roided-up jerk (Shawn Roberts) because it's what she thinks she's supposed to do. She was probably written as a real person: Everyone went to high school with girls like this.
Panettiere is insanely cute as always and the camera does adore her, but she hasn't developed the dramatic chops yet to make Beth's human frailty believable. And so Beth Cooper remains an elusive idea, even to us, rather than the kind of anchor this movie could have used when it shifts from adolescent wackiness to sweet poignance.
"I Love You, Beth Cooper," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.