Suggesting that Miramax needs to put Kevin Williamson on permanent retainer if it’s going to remain in the teen-pics field, “She’s All That” notably fails to bring to comedy the insight that the Williamson-penned “Scream” brought so memorably to horror: that contempo teen auds are best treated as film-smart co-conspirators, not morons who’ll fall for the same formulas over and over. Despite a fresh-faced cast, Valley Girl accents and a patina of teen patois (most of it from the ’80s), “She’s All That” feels like it could have been made by a team of septuagenarians from the glory days of American Intl. Pictures. The overall mood is one of condescension to the milieu, the material and teen filmgoers, via a wanly made high-school romp that might’ve been written by a computer. Pic, which makes the current “Varsity Blues” look like “Citizen Kane” by comparison, should quickly catapult into the vid bins, where it’ll find plenty of forgettable company.
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Never coming within a mile of a fresh idea, pic’s story offers a variation on a premise seen in movies since time immemorial: one high-school hotshot wagers another that he can woo the school’s ugly duckling and make a social princess out of her by the time of the big prom. As only someone who’s never seen a movie will fail to guess, the hotshot who takes the bet actually falls in love with his victim, who is crushed when she discovers the deception — although the happy ending that awaits her is, of course, assured.
The prime hotshot here, handsome BMOC Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), returns from spring break to find that his airheaded but ultra-popular g.f., Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), is ditching him in favor of Brock (Matthew Lillard), a star of MTV’s “The Real World.” At loose ends, Zack takes the wager proffered by his pal Dean (Paul Walker), who picks as the girl Zack has to romance, the dorky, artsy, socially maladroit Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook).
Laney, who lives with her dad (Kevin Pollack) and younger brother (Kieran Culkin) in blue-collar banality, naturally is suspicious of Zack and everything he represents. But he turns on the charm and she soon succumbs to the novel pleasures of being part of the in-crowd.
As part of her transformation, Laney has a makeover (count the cliches as they pile up) that rids her of her bad hippie hairdo and oversized horn-rim specs, revealing what we knew all along: She’s a fox.
Zack and Taylor, though, have been everyone’s idea of the prom King and Queen since freshman year, and when Brock dumps Taylor, she’s back with a vengeance, ready to do battle with Laney over who’s going to accompany Zack on the big night. Natch, the catfight’s outcome will have a lot to do with the fact that Zack, having become truly smitten with Laney, now sees her as the smart, genuine antithesis to phony, shallow, status-obsessed Taylor.
While there are a few good jokes and sight gags along the way, the main impression left by “She’s All That” is how numbingly consistent its lack of originality is. Pic’s vision of high school has nothing that would surprise Andy Hardy, and its characters never begin to rise above the level of cartoons and stereotypes. For the latter reason, a bunch of appealing young actors come off as competent, nothing more, given a context that can’t be transcended.
Prinze reveals himself as an assured, easygoing natural at shouldering leading-man duties, and Cook’s charm and spunk make her an able partner for him. Yet it’s also easy to surmise that both performers could fare better in three-dimensional roles, as is likewise the case with some of pic’s supporting players.
Walker, for example, comes off okay as the bad-guy pal, but made a stronger impression with smaller roles in “Pleasantville” and “Varsity Blues.” And Lillard, a gifted comic actor who does yeoman’s work as Brock, has been far funnier and looser in other films, including “Scream” and “Hackers.”
Pic’s direction, by Robert Iscove, and overall mounting are those of a TV movie. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here, but nothing of any distinction, either. One not unexpected plus is a soundtrack featuring tunes by Liz Phair, the Afghan Whigs and Fat Boy Slim among others.