If the aim was for "John Tucker Must Die" to be a sharp-clawed dark comedy about high school politics in the vein of 1989's "Heathers" and 2004's "The Girl Next Door
," then director Betty Thomas (2002's "I Spy
") and scripter Jeff Lowell (not surprisingly, a sitcom writer) were in way over their heads. As a biting satire, the film is generic and spineless, not smart enough to have anything of worth to say about its setting or characters and not ruthless enough to go for the throat. Taken as a silly teen romp and nothing more, the picture fares only slightly better. As a cast of fresh-scrubbed actors playing 17-year-olds but looking more like twentysomething models go gamely through the paces, the picture never really locates its purpose, nor is it funny, sweet or knowledgeable enough to make the viewer care about what's happening on the screen.
When head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti), animal activist Beth (Sophia Bush) and chronic overachiever Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) discover that they are all being played by the hottest, most popular guy in school, John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe), they take their anger out on each other. Enter new girl in school Kate (Brittany Snow), a self-imposed wallflower who suggests that they join forces to take vengeance out on the real culprit. When their acts of tyranny don't work as planned and John once again ends up on top, the three girls formulate a different scheme in which Kate will work to make John fall hopelessly in love with her and then break his heart. This, too, doesn't go quite as anticipated when Kate, much to her denial, actually starts to fall under John's smooth-talking spell.
In the PG-13 fantasy world that "John Tucker Must Die" populates, drugs and alcohol do not seem to exist, sex is something that is passingly mentioned but never seen, and high school is primarily a place where students walk through hallways with no place to go. In addition, the only subjects to take are science and phys ed, and every day ends in a pep rally. For some this might seem like a dream come true, but it doesn't even begin to resemble what a person's teenage years are really like.
With that taken into account, there is a semi-watchability to the picture in that the soundtrack (mixing current Top 40 hits with '80s covers) is fun to listen to and there are zero chances that a brain cell will be required to follow the goings-on of its shallow characters. John Tucker is a dog in the way he handles as many girls as possible at any given time, but the incessant plotting by Heather, Beth and Carrie to hurt him turns them into even worse offenders than their focus of cruelty. This trio could have been developed into real-seeming individuals through the course of the film, and a lot is made early on of how their different cliques would never associate with each other under normal circumstances, but their two-dimensionality blends them together. It also is worth noting that they are never seen with their own groups of friends, and their every appearance and dialogue exchange is solely related to the plot. They have no interests outside of seeking revenge on John Tucker, which unintentionally causes them to look pathetic.
Rising from the clichés with a speck of class is Brittany Snow (2005's "The Pacifier
"), a fresh and likable actress whose down-to-earth portrayal of Kate encompasses her limited development and a trite subplot involving her young mother's (Jenny McCarthy) tendency to date jerks. Were Kate pulled out of this throwaway comedy and transplanted into a high school-set script that was as savvy as she, she would be an ideal protagonist with refreshing depth to go along with her attractively unconventional looks.
If John Tucker is used as a plot device rather than a multifaceted human being, Jesse Metcalfe (TV's "Desperate Housewives") should at least get credit for conveying why it is everyone else either wants to go out with him or be like him. John Tucker might be a serial cheater, but he's never outwardly mean to others and there is a charm to him. Ashanti (2005's "Coach Carter
"), Sophia Bush (2006's "Stay Alive
") and Arielle Kebbel (2006's "Aquamarine
") round out the main cast as Heather, Beth and Carrie. All of them are promising, energetic performers, but the roles they must play are thankless. Finally, whomever's idea it was to have Jenny McCarthy (2003's "Scary Movie 3
") play the mother of Kate should have their head examined. McCarthy is surprisingly good in a rare straight role, but it is laughable that she would be the biological parent of the 20-year-old Brittany Snow. That might be part of the joke, but since their scenes together are treated seriously it's a missed opportunity.
"John Tucker Must Die" steals from better movies in the teen genre (Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" plays a part in the proceedings, just as it did in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You
"), which only calls attention to how inferior this one is. The broad, lazy humor only sporadically elicits chuckles, with the best gag being a catfight involving volleyballs; the sorta-kinda romance between John and Kate is a lost cause because Kate is lying to John and, in return, John can't be trusted; and the story trajectory is so shortsighted that it can barely withstand the already-brief 87-minute running time. "John Tucker Must Die," a figurative rather than literal title, doesn't insult one's intelligence, but it does waste it. There was a great possibility to explore the complicated ins and outs of high school cliques and relationships, but director Betty Thomas squanders the results by never breathing life or authenticity into the characters and their plights.