'I Love You Beth Cooper'

Pic peaks early -- like, during the first three minutes -- and rapidly goes downhill from there.

Adapted by Larry Doyle from his 2007 novel, “I Love You, Beth Cooper” peaks early — like, during the first three minutes — and rapidly goes downhill from there. Attempting to create an “American Graffiti” for the current teen generation, director Chris Columbus squanders a fertile premise with a loud series of episodic gags, so much so that by the time a few moments of genuine sweetness belatedly arrive, the pic has exhausted any goodwill. Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”) is the primary draw as the movie’s poster girl, but that’s a slim PG-13 come-on to the young guys representing “Beth Cooper’s” best hope.

Of course, Panettiere plays an indestructible cheerleader in her TV series, and she needn’t stretch much here as a surprisingly vulnerable one — the not-very-subtle “Breakfast Club”-esque message being that high school stereotypes are not necessarily all they appear.

With apologies to “Heroes,” if only saving this cheerleader could salvage the movie — or, for that matter, if only Columbus had found a way to relate Doyle’s story with greater style, and in less than 102 laborious minutes.

High school valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) — prodded by his movie-obsessed, maybe-gay best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter) — decides to “seize the day” at graduation and say exactly what he thinks. That includes not only expressing his long-simmering admiration for Panetierre’s Ms. Cooper — the girl he has worshipped from afar — but telling off her muscle-bound ROTC boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts) and calling out the school bully, a stuck-up diva and so on.

The fallout from that uncharacteristic burst of boldness and honesty could have potentially made for an interesting movie. Instead, “Beth Cooper” devolves into an all-in-one-night graduation romp — mostly encouraged by Denis’ dad, an appropriately cast Alan Ruck — that simply feels pallid next to “Superbad” and other edgier coming-of-age comedies that, these days, all seem somehow connected to the prolific mind of Judd Apatow.

Basically, Beth and her pom-pom pals Cammy and Treece (Lauren London and Lauren Storm, respectively) that comprise the “trinity” show up at Denis’ house, leading him and Rich on a madcap evening with Kevin in hot pursuit. Denis is said to be bound for Stanford and eventually med school, which is good, since an assortment of rapidly healing cuts and bruises follow.

As constructed, it’s almost as if Richard Dreyfuss’ “Graffiti” character actually caught up with that dream blonde in the convertible — only to discover that once he did, there was nothing much left to do or talk about, other than race through Vancouver’s wooded areas.

Rust is certainly nerdy enough, and Panettiere does what she can with what’s really more an object than a fleshed-out personality. The same goes for Storm as her promiscuous, bubble-headed friend — a near-bright spot who might be more amusing if her dialogue was less predictable — and Carpenter’s Rich, forced to keep proclaiming his heterosexuality while enthusiastically quoting from classic movies that are significantly better than the one we’re watching.

“No regrets,” Denis states during his impassioned address, in which he urges his peers to seize their moment. For the young, that’s always an appealing thought, but one suspects “Beth Cooper” will nevertheless leave plenty of regrets behind, all around.

I Love You, Beth Cooper

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox Atomic presentation of a 1492 Pictures production. Produced by Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Executive producers, Larry Doyle, Jenny Blum, Michael Flynn. Directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay, Larry Doyle, based on his novel.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Phil Abraham; editor, Peter Honess; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Patrick Houlihan; production designer, Howard Cummings; art director, Sandra Tanaka; set decorator, Mary-Lou Storey; costume designer, Karen Matthews; sound (Dolby/DTS), Michael Williamson; supervising sound editor, Robert Shoup; assistant director, Geoff Hansen; second unit director, Bob Brown; casting, Janet Hirshenson, Michelle Lewitt, Jane Jenkins. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, July 2, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Beth Cooper - Hayden Panettiere Denis Cooverman - Paul Rust Rich - Jack T. Carpenter Cammy - Lauren London Treece - Lauren Storm Kevin - Shawn Roberts
With: Alan Ruck.

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