When I read I Love You, Beth Cooper -- and wrote about the book here a few months ago -- I knew that the on-the-way film adaptation would be thorny. Now that I've seen the film, I can say that it is not merely thorny; it is a textbook case of an adaptation gone wrong. Working from his own mostly delightful novel, Simpsons vet Larry Doyle is like a novice driver who, in trying to avoid potholes, veers to hit every one. And, in what he should consider a betrayal of epic proportions, Doyle gets absolutely no help from anyone involved with the film -- not from the cast, not from the editor, and certainly not from director Chris Columbus, who is utterly helpless when his material is not inherently strong.
I hasten to add that I Love You, Beth Cooper is not that bad -- I think it's a bit better than our Peter Martin lets on, and certainly better than our Eric D. Snider insists. But the movie -- still about a geeky, virginal high school senior who confesses his love for the class hottie in his graduation speech -- is sappy, muddled, and just mystifyingly unfunny. Consider that the novel is hip, razor-sharp, and hilarious, and you start to get a sense of what a rare specimen this adaptation is. So what happened?
One answer is obvious, and a common book-to-film affliction, especially with comedies.: Doyle's material is not actually very funny. What redeemed the novel was Doyle's prose, which is distinctive, manic, sarcastic, self-referential, hilarious. The familiar last-high-school-hurrah events of the plot were an afterthought, at least in terms of laughs. The film doesn't have a narrator (not that a voiceover would have helped), and Doyle's comedy is forced to go from the verbal to the situational. It's a disaster. The movie has three or four good laughs.
Compounding the problem is the casting of twenty-eight-year old Paul Rust as nerdy eighteen-year-old protagonist Denis Cooverman. Rust is a veteran of sketch and improv comedy, and on the strength of I Love You, Beth Cooper, I would venture that he has tremendous stage presence, and is a whiz at the sort of quick, slightly exaggerated character work demanded by improv and sketch. His performance here is broad, showy, cloying, with lots of big, contorted facial expressions and goofball vocal impressions. It's a good portrait of the stereotypical high school nerd, but it is also fairly charmless, and the result doesn't really resemble a human being. We're supposed to get the sense that Denis Cooverman is a good, very smart guy for whom high school may have been rough, but whose best years are very much ahead of him. It doesn't work. The movie's Denis Cooverman is just kind of a doofus.
That notion -- that Denis's best years are still to come, while the people he worshipped and feared likely peaked in high school -- is not new, but it was deployed potently by Doyle, and was the key to his novel. When Beth Cooper confesses to Denis that she knows her life is unlikely to get better from here, it's a revelation Dennis considers "pessimistic, but not inaccurate" -- and he's impressed with Beth's self-awareness. It's a heartbreaking, truthful scene in the middle of a lot of silliness.
In the film, flailing around for a more conventionally happy ending, Doyle has Denis deliver a brutally awful speech about how no, her life will <I>not</I> be boring and ordinary, because the Beth Cooper he knows is alive and exciting, goddammit. There's nothing wrong with Denis wanting to be reassuring, I suppose, but it makes the movie syrupy and insincere instead of cutting and insightful. And it strips the story of its point without offering up a replacement.
I Love You, Beth Cooper is the quintessential failed adaptation: the hollow shell of the source material. It's still, as I say, Not That Bad -- I liked Jack Carpenter as probably-gay best friend Rich Munsch, and Hayden Panettierre makes a great Beth Cooper. But it's generic and hokey and woefully unfunny. The author may have written the screenplay, but I can't imagine he's happy with how the movie turned out.