The closing credits of the teen comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper show director Chris Columbus and the rest of the crew in their old high school photos. The snapshots provide evidence that the filmmakers must have actually attended high schools, which you might not guess from the movie. I Love You, Beth Cooper presents such shrill yet rigid teen clichés it could have been generated by computer software programmed with sitcoms and John Hughes films.
The premise, based on “The Simpsons” writer Larry Doyle’s novel of the same name, seems promising enough. During his graduation speech, geeky valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust, who’s in his late 20s and looks it) professes his true feelings to head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere of “Heroes”). Thanks to alphabetical classroom seating, Denis has “loved her from behind” for years, but has been too low in the teen pecking order to attract her attention. His declaration ensures that Beth knows who he is.
To the surprise of Denis and his movie-quoting best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), Beth and her hot pals (Lauren London and Lauren Storm) show up at Denis’ house that evening, expecting a party. The rest of the movie turns into one of those familiar “one crazy night” set-ups that involve underage drinking, car accidents, locker-room showers, cow tipping and, eventually, moments of quiet conversation. Beth Cooper includes so many violent intrusions from Beth’s roid-enraged boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), it’s as if Columbus is stumped to come up with activities that real teens would do.
Alan Ruck plays Denis’ father in a nod to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but only offers a stale imitation of the teen comedies of two decades ago. It even pales in comparison to Columbus’ own likeable contribution to the genre, Adventures in Babysitting. The painful slapstick and mean-spirited airhead jokes at times border on contempt for the characters, such as the way Rust plays Denis as a flailing, would-be stalker. Beth turns out to have an obnoxious thrill-seeking side, but Panettiere at least hints that the role has some self-awareness.
A few scenes hint that Denis’ speech shook some of his classmates from their cliques and comfort zones, including the school bully with an unexpected sensitive side. I Love You, Beth Cooper drops the idea almost as soon as it brings it up, and cruelly dismisses the plain-looking classmates who genuinely like Denis. Presumably, if young women don’t look like Maxim magazine cover models, they’re beneath the filmmakers’ attention. I guess Hollywood really is just like high school.