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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Paul Rust discovers that dream girl Hayden Panettiere is much different from his fantasies in I Love You, Beth Cooper.
Former "Simpsons" writer Larry Doyle's book I Love You, Beth Cooper won a lot of praise when it was released. It's an interesting novel, in that it was clearly influenced by the teen comedies of the 1980's. Every chapter begins with a quote from one such movie (Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, etc.), and the whole plot was designed to read as though the greatest teen comedy never made was playing inside your head as you turned the pages. Reading the story - which was full of broad humor - I could easily envision the film adaptation Hollywood would make; at the same time, I feared that any movie version would focus only on the comic escapades while completely ignoring the darker theme below the surface. That fear didn't go away when I learned that Chris Columbus (Home Alone) was directing; he's not exactly the guy to mine the subtleties of adolescent fantasy, especially when someone could be taking a champagne cork to the face instead.

Welcome, then, to the neutered big screen adaptation I Love You, Beth Cooper.

Newcomer Paul Rust plays high school valedictorian Denis Cooverman who, during his commencement speech, seizes the final opportunity to profess his long-unspoken love for Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), the most popular girl in school. Rather than being freaked out, Beth and her ditzy friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treese (Lauren Storm), show up at Denis's graduation party, where the only other guest is his might-be-gay, movie-quoting pal Rich Munsch (Jack T. Carpenter). The guys, who really have not seen much action in high school, are astonished. Beth proceeds to show Denis the wildest night of his life. They all get drunk, break into the school, trash a rival's home, and generally get into all kinds of mischief. Meanwhile, Denis is being pursued by Beth's coked-up military boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts) and others whom he pissed off with his "I'm going to say what I want" speech.

Seriously, doesn't that sound like a classic teen comedy? Maybe I would have enjoyed I Love You, Beth Cooper more had I not read the book. Maybe teenagers who are unfamiliar with its origins will, in fact, find it to be something of a modern-day John Hughes picture. My problem with the film is that Doyle (who also penned the screenplay) seems to have softened what his novel was fundamentally about. On the page, this is a story about how we sometimes put people up on a pedestal, ascribing to them qualities they don't have and cannot live up to. As Denis Cooverman goes through an evening with Beth Cooper, he realizes that she's far from the "perfect" dream girl he imagined her to be. She's got issues that his lustful mind could never have processed had it not been smacked with the truth.

Columbus' movie version has the seed of that concept within it, yet waters down the book's R-rated take into something distinctly PG-13, and to the tale's detriment. Here's the best example of what I mean. About a third of the way through the novel, Denis and Beth go into a convenience store and try to illegally buy beer. The clerk, who recognizes that they are underage, refuses. Beth then tells the guy that she will "touch your penis" if he sells it to them. It's a grabber of a moment on the page, as Denis realizes that his dream girl's sexual experience is not only much greater than his, but also something she casually employs to get what she wants. Beth may not be a slut, but she sure knows how to walk that line. Now, in the movie, she merely offers "to kiss you so hard you'll need to change your underwear every time you think about it." Same general idea - using feminine wiles to manipulate a male - but with far less serious implications. So many things like this have been watered down for the film that you never really believe Denis has his world rocked by Beth's reality.

That leads to my question: Why tell this story in movie form if you aren't going to fundamentally tell the story? I'll answer it myself: They wanted to make the movie PG-13 so teens could get in. (Odd, considering an R rating didn't hurt - and may even have helped - Superbad.) Sure, there's a scene where Beth and Denis talk about how different she is from how he imagined her, but it's one of those sappy moments with a wispy instrumental score in the background and all the emotional sincerity of a bad greeting card.

When I found out that Hayden Panettiere was playing Beth Cooper, it seemed like brilliant casting. It's hard not to imagine someone like her in the role. The character would seem to offer a lot of potential for depth, as Beth's immense popularity is at odds with her chaotic, troubled private life. Somewhat bewilderingly, Panettiere either doesn't seem interested in locating that depth, or else Columbus has instructed her not to search for it. This Beth Cooper comes off as misguided but with a heart of gold, and not the wack job she really needs to be for the story to resonate.

Some things I liked. Several of the best comic moments from the book remain intact. I definitely laughed a few times. Thankfully, an important moment where Beth expresses the belief that her life peaked with high school is still effective. There are some good supporting performances too, especially one from Josh Emerson, who plays the bully who regularly beat up Denis but comes to have a change of heart. Now that I think about it, I liked a lot of stuff on the fringes; it was just the center of the movie that didn't feel right to me.

I would definitely recommend I Love You, Beth Cooper in book form. As a movie…well, I have a feeling there will be a harder cut coming to DVD, and if I'm right, that cut may be better. During a few sequences, I noticed some awkward dubbing, which suggests that more provocative lines of dialogue were filmed and then replaced. We'll go back to that convenience store worker. Beth comes out and acknowledges that she "sucked his face," but Panettiere's lips seem to be indicating that something besides a face was sucked. That version might have some bite.

( out of four)

I Love You, Beth Cooper is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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