'I Love You, Beth Cooper' (20th Century Fox)

How do you transform a very funny book into a dreadfully boring movie? I laughed more from reading the first five pages of Larry Doyle's novel than I did during the entirety of Chris Columbus' film version of I Love You, Beth Cooper, despite the fact that Doyle wrote the screenplay. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the book, but when spoken on screen, the lines fall painfully flat. That leaves the attempts at physical humor, which are constant, and will tickle to death only those who love to see pratfalls: "Look, Mommy, man fall down and cry out in agony! Ha, ha!"

Leaving aside the source material and the film's relative faithfulness to it, I Love You, Beth Cooper might have worked as either a joyful, gleefully mischievous, yet ultimately conservative rebel yell (a la Ferris Bueller's Day Off) or as a funny yet thought-provoking tale of teenagers finally growing up (a la Dazed and Confused). Like those two infinitely superior movies, I Love You, Beth Cooper takes place over the course of one eventful day in the life of its teen-aged subjects, but Columbus can't decide whether the movie should be an uncomfortable comedy of embarrassment and humiliation or a sweet, sentimental romance. The tone wavers uncertainly throughout -- often within individual scenes -- and the film's general inertia quickly becomes wearisome.

Hayden Panettiere makes for an unlikely Beth Cooper. She's meant to be a high school dream girl, a fantasy figure concocted by the awkward, hapless Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) through all the years that he's sat behind her in class and stared at her picture on his bedroom ceiling.



The plot is set in motion when Denis declares his love for Beth during their graduation speech, and then proceeds to unburden himself of all his other unspoken feelings in one fell swoop. He singles out the class bully and a pretty but shallow party girl, takes a verbal swipe at Beth's boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts), and tells his movie-quoting best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter) to admit that he's gay.

Denis' speech upsets everyone except Beth, who thinks it was "sweet," giving Denis the courage to invite her to a party at his house that night. The military-trained Kevin, though, takes the greatest umbrage at Denis for calling him an 'over-aged loser who keeps company with high school girls because he can't get a date with a girl his own age.' Kevin is determined to destroy Denis and stalks him continually, ready to rain down merciless punishment, along with his two equally-fit Army buddies.

Denis' mother (Cynthia Stevenson) and father (Alan Ruck, from Ferris Bueller oh so many years ago) leave him and Rich alone at the house for their party, which no one attends, of course; they're social outcasts. Until, that is, Beth shows up in her tiny blue car with her friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm). Beth, we're meant to believe, must have some kind of interest in Denis, or else why would she show up? Her friends are catty and mean-spirited, not showing an ounce of human empathy when Denis accidentally cuts himself opening a bottle of champagne and starts bleeding profusely. Beth is one step above them, rushing over to help Denis.

And this is where the problems of the general tone, the casting, and the adaptation from R-rated novel to PG-13 rated film come into play. As I noted, Beth is meant to be a dream girl, but one with glaring imperfections that shatter Denis' fantasy. A turning point comes right after the gang (Denis, Beth, Rich, Cammy, and Treece) have escaped from Kevin and his comrades. Denis and Beth go into a liquor store to buy beer, but the clerk (Samm Levine) refuses to sell to the under-aged kids until Beth offers to 'kiss you so good you'll mess your underwear when you think about it later.' We don't see the kiss, but Denis is disillusioned by her actions: "She's not Beth Cooper."

In the novel, it's slightly different; she offers to touch the clerk's penis.

That's not the only change, but I think it's symptomatic of the picture as a whole. Panettiere is a lovely actress, fully capable of dramatizing inner turmoil and anguish, and can certainly play bubbly and cute. And in her "nude scene," she happily shows off her bare back, above the waist, and a flash of side boob. But her Beth Cooper doesn't really seem like an f-bomb dropping, rule-breaking girl who walks on the wild side and is willing to get her hands dirty in the process of having a good time. She's a hottie, but not a truly naughty hottie. At one point Denis says that she scares him, yet the movie Beth isn't scary at all; she's too light-spirited and good-hearted to harbor a reservoir of troubled feelings.

The 28-year-old Rust is not terribly convincing as Denis. He's supposed to be fearful of a great many things and, indeed, the actor often looks timid and uncertain. He's so "all aflutter," though, that it feels cruel to laugh at him. At the same time, I can't remember anything he said that sounded funny. It's either his delivery, or his timing, or ...

I think it all comes back to director Chris Columbus. He put together a string of commercial comedies from 1987 to 1995 (including Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Nine Months) that today inspire more nostalgia than admiration. I Love You, Beth Cooper feels awkward in all the worst ways, bumbling along earnestly and hoping to earn a laugh or two from gags that were tired when they were first used in Home Alone. Worst of all, the film never captures the vibe or elicits the gut reactions of a really good book.

In these difficult economic times, it makes more sense to buy Larry Doyle's novel and skip Chris Columbus' movie.