Based on the novel by former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle (who also scripted), I Love You, Beth Cooper opens with a high-school super-nerd boldly declaring his long-unspoken love for the head cheerleader during his valedictory speech. It’s a supremely clueless moment in a supremely clueless movie, but it sets up a potentially interesting dilemma: What will happen when, gulp, he actually has to speak to her? How might the real girl square with the fantasy? After the movie’s over, that’s still an open question, because Doyle and director Chris Columbus peel back the fantasy of a untouchable beauty to reveal another fantasy—that of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who sprinkles fairy dust on the hero’s head and drags him into adulthood by his Spider-Man Underoos. There’s hardly an authentic second in the film.
A shotgun marriage between the extreme awkwardness of Judd Apatow comedies and ancient jock-vs.-nerd battles from ’80s John Hughes or Revenge Of The Nerds, I Love You, Beth Cooper takes place in a world no modern teenager will recognize. After confessing his love to sparkle-eyed Hayden Panettiere at graduation, Paul Rust and ambiguously gay best friend Jack Carpenter retreat to Rust’s place for a house party with no expected guests. When Panettiere shows up with two hot friends, Rust entertains the group by making a fool out of himself—don’t trust a bungling doofus with a champagne bottle—but everyone has to flee in terror when her psychotic ROTC boyfriend and his buddies come around.
What follows is a dusk-’til-dawn coming-of-age story in the Dazed And Confused tradition, though that’s all the two films have in common. Columbus doesn’t go for subtle observation when sitcom cartoonishness will do; whenever the film unleashes one of its cutesy flashbacks, the adolescents inevitably have Coke-bottle glasses, zit-pocked faces, and more steel on their teeth than Jaws in Moonraker. Columbus’ love of the obvious gag—Carpenter shows off his new shoes in reel two for the sole purpose of stepping around cow patties in reel four—sabotages the budding connection between Rust and Panettiere, in spite of the insistent pleadings of the wall-to-wall music score. Much like Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, I Love You, Beth Cooper tries to exploit and explode broad stereotypes, but it never transcends the labels it applies.