Panettiere Is Eye-opening In 'I Love You, Beth Cooper'

She Provides Spark As Cheerleader Captain In Genial-enough Dramedy ** ( 2 Stars)

July 10, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

What's refreshing about I Love You, Beth Cooper isn't just that the debate-team captain emotionally connects with the cheerleading captain. It's also that the cheerleader may be the deepest character - and that the actor who plays her plainly gives the best performance.

Since that gifted, attractive performer is Hayden Panettiere, who has already won a wide following for Heroes, it's a wonder that the studio hasn't been more heavily promoting her appearance in this decent, genial youth comedy. After all, she does play, ah, Beth Cooper.

Maybe it's right for Panettiere to learn early on that in movies, good-looking women often get marked on a tougher curve; Michelle Pfeiffer still isn't winning the attention she deserves for her shattering performance in Cheri. Unlike the fresh, original novel by Larry Doyle (who also wrote the script), I Love You, Beth Cooper is simply an earnest, blessedly un-ironic coming-of-age story, with the gimmick that the coming of age happens in one night. But Panettiere gives off the spark that Tuesday Weld brought to hipper movies like Lord Love a Duck, and the director, Chris Columbus, lends the enterprise his sincerity and solidity.

Oddly enough, what Columbus doesn't bring is his usual sharp instinct for casting. I Love You, Beth Cooper is about the cataclysmic collision of two opposite worlds, brought on when valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) proclaims his love for Cooper in his commencement address. She thinks it's good for a laugh and a visit with two pals to his graduation "party." Before they arrive, this bash consists of Denis and his best friend.

Denis sums up an adolescence spent in a room of one's own - a room filled with science models, sci-fi toys and Star Wars paraphernalia. A room visited only by Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter), who has memorized all the dialogue and each credit on every picture he's seen in theaters or on classic movie channels. (Everyone thinks Rich is gay, though he dismisses the thought.) Beth sums up an adolescence of intense social activity. She pursues pleasure recklessly in a peppy car she pushes to the limit, accompanied by her righthand gals on the cheerleading squad, Cammy Alcott (Lauren London) and Treece Kilmer (Lauren Storm).

But the group fun never rises to the proper explosive levels, mainly because Rust is so wrong as Denis Cooverman. He registers like an adult comic doing a skit about his clumsy teen years - you might think he should end up with the attractive school principal. Rust lacks spontaneity, invention and verve. He and Carpenter's awkwardly ingratiating Rich contrast too starkly with the three cheerleaders, who, as a team, click as smoothly as Vegas showgirls.

Columbus and Doyle jettison the manic interior monologues that drive the book. (Only fractions of them make it into Denis' halting, stop-and-go dialogue.) Do you remember when Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, describes how test pilots run through a mental checklist in the seconds before they eject from a plane? Denis, who sees disaster at every corner, does the same thing, only haywire. He uses cascades of slang synonyms, mathematical equations, biological definitions and Klingon soliloquies to steady his nerves during impending doom.

Without some movie equivalent of this verbal Wrong Stuff, the comic burden rests on the nearly constant threat of Beth's jealous Army boyfriend and two service buddies to break Denis and Rick like twigs. The slapstick mucilage doesn't bind with the film's increasingly straightforward dramedy about Denis' epiphany that his dream girl is human.

Luckily, Panettiere really does make Beth the cheerleader of every boy's dreams, as well as a flesh-and-blood girl who knows all the work, luck and silliness that went into winning that iconic position. When she instructs Denis, " for future reference," that he should put his arm around a girl when she talks about the moon, she imbues Beth with the blaze of youth as well as a poignant recognition that it does burn quickly. It's a performance to savor now - and to store for future reference.

I Love You, Beth Cooper

(Fox Atomic) Starring Hayden Panettiere, Paul Rust and Jack T. Carpenter. Directed by Chris Columbus. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and brief violence. Time 101 minutes.

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