“Slap ‘Em, They’re Texans!” would be a better title for this rainbow-colored slice of sitcommy fare, in which the inhabitants of the Lone Star State manage to come off even worse than zee leetel French exchange student who lands in their midst. Scripters Robert Lee King and Lamar Damon leave no national cliche or double entendre unturned in this good-looking but relentlessly lowbrow outing which plays like “Clueless Does South Fork” with a side order of garlic. Already released in German-speaking Europe in February, the Teuton-financed pic is set to hit English-language markets this fall, Stateside in late August and the U.K. in mid-October — where “Slap Her” should tickle up some quick cash from undemanding locations before retiring to half-inch.
Co-scripter King himself wrote and directed the ’60s parody “Psycho Beach Party,” and there’s a similar retro feel to “Slap Her,” with its full-on colors, overplayed stereotypes (parents, teachers, prom queens) and air of rampant self-fixation. If the dialogue were sharper, pic could be dubbed a satire of Texan values and lifestyle; instead, it’s yet one more celebration of dumbness, turn-of-the-century-style, and rarely laugh-out-loud.
Daughter of the comfortably-off Grady family, 17-year-old Starla (Jane McGregor, from MTV’s “Live Through This”) is a head cheerleader whose aspirations run to winning a local beauty pageant and pursuing a career in daytime TV. Blonde, popular, spoilt, and dating a quarterback (Matt Czuchry) at the same school, Splendona High, Starla sees Barbie as a role model and hasn’t been beyond the state border. Her 11-year-old brother, bespectacled brainbox Randolph (Jesse James), says she looks like a drag queen. Her mother, Bootsie (Julie White), attends concerts and thinks Mozart is Japanese music.
Desperate to win the Beef Pageant over rivals Ashley (Alexandra Adi) and Tanner (Nicki Aycox), Starla blurts out onstage that her family is going to sponsor a French exchange student. Subsequently, mild-mannered Genevieve LePlouff (Piper Perabo, from “Coyote Ugly” and “Lost and Delirious”) arrives from Gaul, wearing everything but onions round her neck.
As played by Perabo, Genevieve actually looks (and sounds) about as French as an overcooked T-bone steak, although this turns out to be half the point later on. In the meantime, once the script has milked her accent, ooh-la-la sophistication and lines like “Don’t cry: in France we are taught sadness and joy are sisters holding hands” for all they’re worth, a smidgen of a plot starts to emerge in the fourth reel.
Far from being a guileless foreigner entranced by the Texas life, Genevieve secretly plots to undermine Starla and take over as head cheerleader. “OK, bitch, it’s payback time,” snarls Starla at the 50-minute mark. But the minxy mademoiselle still has some tricks up her sleeve.
In only her second bigscreen helming assignment (after “The Baby-Sitters Club,” 1995), director Melanie Mayron directs with a competent anonymity and draws lively playing from her cast without over-indulging them as a fellow actor. Both lead thesps — and especially McGregor — come into their own in the final half-hour, as the gloves come off and Starla’s carefully manicured world starts to implode. Michael McKean has a limited amount of fun as a lecherous French teacher, and White is fine as Starla’s over-ripe mom.
However, it’s James who quietly steals every scene he’s in as Starla’s precocious younger brother, whether just sitting there reading “A Short History of Time” or “Tropic of Cancer” to one side, or ending a sequence with a simple put-down.
Julia Caston’s subtly overstated costumes complement the general candy-colored production design, and editor Marshall Harvey brings the whole shebang in at a thankfully brisk 90 minutes, sans flab.