One of the unheralded guilty pleasures of inane teen sex comedies comes from watching middle-aged filmmakers haplessly attempt to gauge the pulse of teen America. In John Tucker Must Die, for example, the innate soulfulness of protagonist Brittany Snow is conveyed by her passion for "old-school Elvis Costello" (screw those late-period Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach collaborations!), "obscure podcasts" (as opposed to ubiquitous, super-popular ones), and "reading Dave Eggers." Then again, maybe the filmmakers deserve credit for even trying, however fecklessly, to get inside the minds of today's teens. Elsewhere, Snow meets cute with the brooding, equally soulful brother (Penn Badgley) of the titular hunk when she notices him stumbling his way through Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me." Like many of their teen-movie peers, Badgley and Snow's characters were ostensibly born in the late '80s, yet they share the musical tastes of a generation that came of age in the late '70s.
But Tucker's pop-culture cluelessness constitutes only a small part of its all-around hopelessness: Any film where Jenny McCarthy (who plays Snow's mom) does much of the dramatic heavy lifting has more to worry about than clunky pop references. The problems begin with the gimmicky plot, which finds an anonymous dork (Snow) teaming up with a cheerleader (Ashanti), a hippie (Sophia Bush), and a brain (Arielle Kebbel) to take down three-timing hunk John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe). First, they merely attempt to publicly humiliate him. When that backfires, they remake Snow, Pygmalion-style, into the most popular girl in school, then trick Metcalfe into falling for her in order to set him up for the ultimate comeuppance.
Tucker is really two movies operating at cross purposes. In order for the film to work as a revenge fantasy, the audience needs to dislike Metcalfe and crave his downfall. But in order for the ugly-ducking romance to succeed, the film needs viewers to like Metcalfe and hope his transformation from player to lovelorn sap looks sincere. Metcalfe's winning performance irrevocably tilts the film toward the romance category; his affable stud is infinitely more likeable than the vindictive shrews trying to bring him down. Revenge movies often end with the message that vengeance is empty and futile, but it's never encouraging when revenge seems pointless from the start.