Our Grade:A– Review in a Hurry: Supremely dorky high-school valedictorian Dennis (Paul Rust) decides to tell it like it is in his commencement address, trashing bullies by name and declaring his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). We’ve seen nerds pine for less-unattainable-than-expected hotties before, but rarely does it feel this real…and funny.
The Bigger Picture: After a decade or so of death throes under the watch of generic cutie-pies like Amanda Bynes and Hilary Duff, the teen comedy makes a strong comeback in this adaptation by Larry Doyle of his own comedic novel.
Rust is no hunky actor pretending to be nebbish under glasses and a bad hairdo—he is genuinely strange-looking, and his Dennis is so realistically awkward and askew that you can understand why people might not want to hang out with him. As is his best friend Rich (Jack Carpenter), a possibly closeted movie geek who thinks Jack Nicholson impersonations are the height of hilarity.
So when Dennis decides to talk smack in front of the whole school, seizing his final opportunity to say everything he was always afraid to utter, he might as well be painting a target on his head, especially in the eyes of Beth’s psychotic, Terminator-built military boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts). Fortunately, Beth takes enough pity on her sad-sack suitor that she saves him and Rich from a massive beatdown, and along with her sidekicks—plainspoken Cammy (Lauren London) and nymphomaniac Treece (Lauren Storm)—they spend the evening crashing parties while fleeing not just from Kevin’s posse, but also the numerous other aggrieved parties from graduation, all while avoiding the parents (one even played by former Ferris Bueller BFF Alan Ruck).
I Love You, Beth Cooper pushes the limits of PG-13, with some very frank sex talk and even brief nudity. Yet that isn’t the main reason it feels so honest: The secret weapon here is Panettiere, who may lure in the boys with her looks, but who is also a genuinely formidable actress who renders in Beth a complex soul. (Fans are advised to rent her little-seen, off-kilter kids movie The Dust Factory).
If the credits didn’t say so clearly, we’d never have believed this movie was directed by über-sentimentalist Chris Columbus, who’s usually content to replace life’s complications with simplistic smiles and tears. Columbus has long been associated with John Hughes, most notably on the Home Alone films. Here, at last, he channels the best of his mentor.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Impressionable kids should probably be kept away, as the movie’s teen heroes break multiple laws, wreak massive havoc and aren’t even remotely punished; their experiences prove almost entirely rewarding. If you like morals to your movies, this ain’t the one.