Like one of those kids in high school you never noticed, “Whatever It Takes” makes little impression and is sure to leave few memories for a teen aud that must increasingly feel like Hollywood is cheating it out of a good time. Feeling strangely dated even though it was fast-tracked through the system, pic is yet another weak try at surfing the youth pic wave — but surf’s down and the water is glassy. Not even spring break timing will help what is the lightest, most forgettable item yet backed by Phoenix Pictures, and sour word will spread quickly, assuring a quick theatrical exit and a tepid ancillary future.
Kids the same age as the characters may not get the connection, but literate crowd will spot writer Mark Schwahn’s attempt (a la “Clueless’ ” high school adaptation of “Emma”) to modernize “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with outsider Ryan (Shane West) standing in for the long-nosed one, jock Chris (James Franco) as the lover-in-training, and Maggie (Marla Sokoloff) as Roxane.
Obvious to all but themselves, Ryan and Maggie are perfect for each other, having long been pals and neighbors who chat endlessly at their facing bedroom balconies. There’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be an item: Ryan, unlike Cyrano, is as handsome as any guy at pic’s fictitious, L.A.-based Gilmore High School and has Cyrano-like sensitivity, while Maggie is more warmly sexy and intelligent than Roxane.
But given the dictates of this cookie-cutter script, Ryan’s eyes will turn elsewhere, glomming onto the impossible-to-get campus sex bomb/bimbo, Ashley (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). Maggie knows she’s trouble, but Ryan instead listens to hyped-up pal Floyd’s (Aaron Paul) urgings, leading to mechanical-feeling scene where Ryan spies on showering Ashley in the girl’s locker room. Unlikely situation just gets worse, as Chris suddenly makes a deal with Ryan to set him up with Ashley if Ryan will set things up with Maggie, whom Chris swears he has the hots for.
Ryan, sucker that he apparently is, buys in, leading to a series of such strained plot maneuvers that characters repeatedly mouth the very questions that Schwahn and helmer David Raynr should have pondered before filming. Not least among them is Maggie wondering aloud what Chris sees in her (Chris’ reply being one of the moments when Ryan-as-Cyrano feeds dumb Chris the right lines to win her heart). But even the jock’s eventual motive — as a dating game, to date her and dump her — isn’t credible for a nanosecond, since Chris could have any girl in the school.
Pic operates on such a rudimentary level that even dumb jocks will feel insulted, and no amount of sideshow pranks led by Floyd and his nerdy pals, which climax by sending prom partygoers into a pool hidden under a retractable basketball court (a familiar sight to all alum and students of Beverly Hills High, where scene was shot, as well as viewers of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), will detract from this. At almost no moment is a character allowed to act like more than a piece on the storytelling checkerboard, and it’s this willful disinterest in creating anything resembling distinctive human beings that makes “Whatever It Takes” such an arid undertaking.
Project suggests hand of Raynr in script, since it echoes with rather stunning repetition several large and small details and scenes from his first and previous pic, “Trippin’,” also a high school romantic comedy about hapless dating and a prom hijacked by the hero. Major, notable difference in pics is that while former depicted an all-African American world, “Whatever” is almost exclusively white.
Both, however, are filmed as blandly as can be, with modest, straightforward tech support.
West and Sokoloff are at least likable, even when their characters make no sense, and here that’s a small triumph. O’Keefe actually has the hardest assignment, playing a stuck-up siren with hidden insecurities, and she’s able to deliver on the bitchiness as well as the comedy.
Franco comes off as too oily from the beginning, so it’s impossible seeing Sokoloff alone with him for a minute. Paul’s class clown shtick comes off as a bad David Arquette impression. “The West Wing’s” Richard Schiff is slotted into a thankless task of repeating the second-worst gag in recent pics, while Julia Sweeney as Ryan’s school nurse mom is reduced to doing the absolute worst gag, an auditorium demo with a giant penis. High school ain’t what it used to be.