So there are these two high school dudes, right, and though they're seniors, they're so aggressively geeky and socially inept that losing their virginity doesn't even seem like a real-world prospect. But before they leave for college, they have the opportunity to have one last craaaaazy night of adventure that could well culminate in getting laid – in addition to drunk, beaten up, and/or arrested.
Wait: have you heard this one before? You could be forgiven for thinking – or at least hoping – that Superbad was the last word on this subject. But like it or not, here comes I Love You Beth Cooper, adapted by Simpsons vet Larry Doyle from his own novel and directed by that stalwart of the bland and inoffensive, Chris Columbus.
The book reads, indeed, like Superbad by a Simpsons writer: hyperactive, incessantly self-referential, with occasional bursts of sincerity in an attempt to give the proceedings some emotional heft. It's often very funny, though usually due to an oddball choice of words by Doyle rather than anything situational. ("This is... odd," he she-grunted.") Where Superbad balanced out the raunch with a disarming sweetness, Beth Cooper goes for a sort of detached, intellectual cool, obviously sympathizing with its besotted protagonist (Doyle claims that "Denis Cooverman" is inspired by his own high school experience) but also taking not-inconsiderable joy in pounding him into the dirt. Mileage may vary; I can see how this approach would seem insufferable to some.
There is a hook here, though, that's not present in Beth Cooper's sub-genre predecessors: the novel opens with the hero going wildly off-script in his high school valedictorian graduation speech, telling most of his classmates what he thinks of them, imploring his best friend to come out of the closet, and confessing his unrequited love for the gorgeous, unattainable title character. So even though Doyle is brutal to his protagonist later in the book, he gives him points for courage to begin with, frontloading some of the redemption that would normally come at the end. This does more than you'd think to set the story apart: no matter how pathetic Doyle tries to make Denis Cooverman seem, we're never quite convinced.
The movie adaptation comes with plenty of warning signs. The freedom to cross into R-rated territory is key here, but that would be a first for director Chris Columbus, who's never made anything raunchier than Rent. Indeed, the presence of Columbus is itself worrisome: what will happen to the fast-paced, freewheeling, often downright bizarre novel in the hands of one of the most unremarkably workmanlike filmmakers in the business? This isn't Harry Potter, where Columbus was perfectly fine just shoving the story onto the screen; Beth Cooper is not plot-driven, and requires some wit and invention to work.
The other thing Columbus is known for is earnestness, which seems at odds with Doyle's incessant sarcasm. The only thing worse than a straightforward, PG-13 rated version of Beth Cooper would be a straightforward and sappy PG-13 rated version of the same. That Doyle is writing the screenplay himself should hopefully help with this.
Then there's the fact that Denis Cooverman – 17 years old and barely pubescent in the novel – will be played by Paul Rust, a 27-year old veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade, while his dweeby movie-quoting best friend Rich is played by 24-year old Jack Carpenter. I suppose this is a case of the studio wanting to cast seasoned comics in the teenager roles, which is more forgivable than the impulse to cast implausibly attractive twentysomethings (and indeed, the one role where that could have been the strategy – Beth Cooper – is occupied by the age-appropriate Hayden Panettiere). Still, this is one of my pet peeves.
The ultimate message of I Love You, Beth Cooper isn't terribly populist, though it should warm the hearts of movie bloggers everywhere: the kids who had a fantastic time in high school tend to peak in high school, while the nerds have their whole lives ahead of them. As such, Doyle's is a novel written for readers who remember their high school careers as similar, at least in outline, to Denis Cooverman's. For me, the biggest question is whether the movie adaptation will have the guts to keep the faith with that, or if it will instead try to be all things to all people.