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Dustin Putman

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I Love You, Beth Cooper  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Chris Columbus.
Cast: Paul Rust, Hayden Panettiere, Jack T. Carpenter, Lauren London, Lauren Storm, Shawn Roberts, Alan Ruck, Cynthia Stevenson, Jared Keeso, Brendan Penny, Marie Avgeropoulos, Josh Emerson, Pat Finn, Andrea Savage, Violet Columbus, Anna Mae Routledge, Anja Savcic. William C. Vaughan, Darien Provost, Samm Levine.
2009 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, language, drug references, and brief violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 7, 2009.
From "Sixteen Candles" to "Can't Hardly Wait," "I Love You, Beth Cooper" is not shy about where it gets its affectionate influences from. A largely faithful adaptation of the novel by Larry Doyle (who also penned the screenplay), this snappily written, consistently entertaining teen comedy will be a dream come true for fans of ‘80s-era John Hughes who mourn the belief that they don't make movies like that anymore. Alternately raucous, very funny and poignantly bittersweet, the film starts with a terrific story hook from which to jump off from and then travels down a road of nostalgia that accurately portrays that very specific moment in a person's life when he or she realizes high school—and childhood—is over for good.

Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is the valedictorian of his graduating class at Buffalo Glenn High School, but he has gone through his years of education being virtually invisible to everyone but cinema-quoting best friend Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter). Intelligent though he may be—he is heading to Stanford in the fall—Denis yearns to be remembered, to say what he has wanted to say for six years but never had the courage to. Standing before his entire class, he comes clean, professing his love for the pretty, popular Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). Afterwards, Beth confronts him. "You embarrassed me," she says, "but it was so sweet I'll have to let you live." Her older, buffoonish military boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts) is not quite as amused, making it his mission to flatten Denis. Defying expectations, Beth and friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm) nonetheless show up on Denis' doorstep later that same day. With Rich in tow, the newly graduated high schoolers set out for a wild night none of them will soon forget.

Directed by Chris Columbus (2005's "Rent"), "I Love You, Beth Cooper" establishes itself as an above-average teen film entry right from the start, boasting fast, acerbic dialogue, well-defined characters, and a loose up-all-night narrative that hits most of the hallmarks of the genre. Screenwriter Larry Doyle (2003's "Duplex") has done a very nice job transferring his own book into script form, narrowly working within the constraints of the PG-13 rating without compromising most of his source material. Courtesy of Columbus, the ongoing scenes pitting Denis against the psychotic Kevin and minions Dustin (Jared Keeso) and Sean (Brendan Penny) are a little less brutal and mean-spirited than they were in the novel, and there aren't as many of them. This is greatly beneficial because they make their point, but also know not to overstay their welcome. For the most part, the focus remains on the central characters of Denis, Beth, Rich, Cammy and Treece, as it should, and their unpredictably evolving relationships.

As the action takes the quintet from graduation ceremony, to Denis' underattended soirée, to convenience store, to wooded bonfire, to a huge party thrown by stuck-up classmate Valli Wooley (Marie Avgeropoulos), to a half-dozen other places across town, the protagonists' façades are gradually peeled away to discover surprising layers. Cammy and Treece aren't merely interchangeable hanger-on stereotypes, but have their own respective personalities and charms. Beth isn't a perfect, plastic, unobtainable dream girl, but a young woman whose devil-may-care, at times irresponsible, actions reveal flaws and only vaguely hide her insecurities. Denis, faced with seeing Beth in a whole new, not always savory, light, must come to terms with his fantasy version of Beth turning out to be just that—a fantasy. Does he still like what he sees? And how about Beth? Is she drawn to Denis simply because of his graduation declaration, or because there is more between them? Could there be a genuine future for these two opposites? That director Chris Columbus takes the time to question these things while listening—really listening—to his characters' thoughts, ideas, dreams and fears is purely refreshing. Side parts, like Denis' ex-girlfriend Patty Keck (Anna Mae Routledge) and bully-with-a-conscience Greg Saloga (Josh Emerson), are more than one-note caricatures, too, and even Denis' parents, Mr. and Mrs. C (Alan Ruck and Cynthia Stevenson), are shown to have actual lives separate from their potentially thankless roles as the main character's mother and father.

Any question that Paul Rust (2008's "Semi-Pro") might not be the ideal choice for the lead role of Denis Cooverman is put to rest from the moment he comes onscreen. Rust brilliantly captures the Denis of the novel—awkward but smart, nebbish but adorably sincere—and keeps him lovable even as his face gets bloodier and more beat up as the evening progresses. As Rich, whose photographic memory of film is offset by his confusion over his sexuality, Jack T. Carpenter (2007's "Sydney White") is a terrific partner-in-crime for Denis. Carpenter's Rich is the comic relief of the ensemble, but neither the actor nor the script overdoes it or loses sight of the heart of the character. Lauren London (2009's "Next Day Air") is warmly quick-witted as Cammy and Lauren Storm (2007's "The Game Plan") is a fresh, quirky find as the loopy, game Treece. Choosing the underrated Alan Ruck (2008's "Ghost Town") as Mr. Cooverman is excellent casting, all the better to remind one of his own place in the teen genre: as Cameron in 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

And then there is Beth Cooper, a complex creature who dares people to love her for whom she really is. As Denis figures it at one point, she breaks at least seven or eight laws through the course of the night. While some of her more egregious actions—like running a Hummer through a house—would have done better to be touched upon with some sort of consequence or explanation, as it was in the novel, the viewer nonetheless does grow to care deeply about her. Hayden Panettiere (2005's "Ice Princess") delivers a desirable, multifaceted performance that deserves to become iconic in teen movie circles, still talked about on message boards and in television specials like VH1's inevitable "I Love the ‘00s" in another ten or twenty years. Fun, a little crazy, and certainly unexpected, Panettiere depicts the joy of Beth's here-and-now and the trepidation for a future she believes will be nothing but ordinary. Particularly touching is a moment set in the high school gym where the girls' upbeat cheerleading routine leaves Beth suddenly, silently realizing the brevity of their youth, and a conclusion where, by this time, a single line—"Thank you for loving me"—has grown to mean so much for the characters and the audience that it is almost devastating.

"I Love You, Beth Cooper" is a mid-summer delight, an honest, earnest, dryly cutting coming-of-age comedy with a soft heart where it counts. The film is uplifting, but also ruminative when it needs to be, depicting a time that, no matter how good or bad it might have been the first time around, none of us will ever be able to get back. Meanwhile, a scene where Beth and the gang explode into a sing-along to Alice Cooper's "School's Out" via Denis' graduation iPod mix is total bliss, symbolizing the sense of freedom of being seventeen and on the open road with friends. It also culminates in a great zinger delivered by Treece. Too crafty to merely end with a neat bow, director Chris Columbus and writer Larry Doyle instead concoct a more open-ended conclusion—one with hope, to be sure, but also realism and a welcome practicality. Still, when Denis admits to Beth in the third act, "All my memories of high school are from tonight," we know what he means. Deceptively frothy and pleasingly wise, "I Love You, Beth Cooper" dares to dig beneath the surface in order to find the true emotions inherent in John Hughesian teenagedom. Some of them—most of them, we are comforted to find—are, or were, our own.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman