“Can’t Hardly Wait” is a mediocre attempt to recapture the exuberance and candid portraiture of such high school movie classics as “American Graffiti,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Dazed and Confused.” Boisterous comedy’s appealing and energetic cast, headed by up-and-comers Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ethan Embry, compensates only up to a point for an uneven script and rough direction. Pandering to its target audience by recycling cliches and stereotypes, pic should benefit from its timely release and the fact it’s the first of a half dozen promised school movies to hit the bigscreen over the next few months.
Neophyte directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont can’t decide whether to situate their film in the tradition of the more poignant and socially resonant “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” or simply to rehash the conventions of prankish, frivolous party movies like “Porky’s.” Muddled blend of music, which includes Barry Manilow, ’80s disco hits and ’90s pop tunes, doesn’t help to ground the film in its contempo milieu. Result is a comedy that’s neither authentic in its lingo and concerns, nor universal enough to appeal to broader segments of the audience; it succeeds only partially in conveying the excitement, fear and confusion of that momentous night when adolescence ends and young adulthood begins.
As soon as the painful graduation ceremony is over at Huntington Hills High, preparations begin for the real festivity — a bash at the house of a hysterical hostess (Michelle Brookhurst), whose sole role is to protest the carpet stains, petty thefts and lewd graffiti perpetrated by her guests. First reel is frustratingly weak and raucous, as Lloyd Ahern’s restless camera covers a multiracial celebration that includes every imaginable type: jocks, geeks, prom queens, bimbos, nerds, headbangers and a garden variety of misfits. Aspiring writer Preston (Embry), about to leave for a Boston college the next day, has been in love with Amanda (Hewitt), the class knockout, ever since they met during freshman year.
Four years later, Preston’s tormented infatuation with Amanda is even more intense. Holding a precious letter he has written to her, he decides to seize his final opportunity and proclaim love. The timing seems ripe, as Amanda has just been dumped by arrogant b.f. Mike (Peter Facinelli). Their breakup, which seems to concern every student at the party, is one of the few dramatic events in a rather plotless movie.
It takes 40 long minutes for the first quiet, meaningful scene to take place, in which Amanda discloses a severe identity crisis: “If I’m not Mike’s girlfriend, who am I?” Indeed, pic improves considerably as soon as it centers on its half-dozen protagonists, involving viewers emotionally for the first time. Large sections are set in the locked bathroom, where two misfits, Denise (Lauren Ambrose) and childhood friend Kenny (Seth Green), unload four years of emotional baggage.
Sporadically, the writing is sharp, as in a touching scene in which Mike, who broke up with Amanda so that he could be free to pursue his sexually charged fantasies with college women, gets disenchanting advice from an older student, Amanda’s cousin Ron (Erik Palladino), regarding the reality that awaits him in college: “Guys like us are a dime a dozen.”
With obvious echoes of Cameron Crowe’s far superior “Say Anything” and its unlikely romance between two opposites, last act clears the obstacles between Amanda and Preston. True to form, predictable finale will delight audiences, who may find themselves rooting for the central couple almost by default because there are not many likable characters around.
Pacing in first segments is frantic, later sequences, though, are more sensitive, helping to bring out some acute observations in the more intimate interactions.
Aside from the two charming leads, thesps hitting high points include the attractive Facinelli as the childish, self-absorbed Mike; Charlie Korsmo as a sci-fi-loving, honor-roll geek; Green as a white guy pretending to be a homeboy; and, especially, red-haired Ambrose as Preston’s sensitive, introverted confidante who carries more than one chip on her shoulders.
With the notable exception of the costumes by Mark Bridges (“Boogie Nights”), tech credits are just passable, which may be a reflection of the budget.