Dir. Chris Columbus. US. 2009. 112 mins

The novel I Love You, Beth Cooper won acclaim for former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle when it came out in 2007. But in the hands of Doyle (as screenwriter) and director Chris Columbus it translates to the big screen as a dated and largely charmless high school comedy lacking even the energetic raunchiness that sometimes works for the genre. The film’s biggest selling point at the box office will be the appearance of Hayden Panettiere, from TV hit Heroes, in the title role.

Panettiere will need to prove herself in something more challenging if she wants to develop a big-screen career.

Opening in the US and Canada opposite Bruno and just before the new Harry Potter, this Fox-distributed comedy (produced by the studio’s now defunct Fox Atomic genre label) will have to rely on Panettiere’s presence to attract even a moderate-sized young male crowd. Other audience segments will be hard to come by.

International prospects may be even dimmer, given that American high school comedies usually under-perform outside their home market, though grosses might spike slightly in territories where Heroes is popular.

Doyle (who also wrote the features Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Duplex) retains at least the skeleton of a promising coming-of-age story in his adaptation. Panettiere’s Beth is a pretty and popular high schooler who has long been the secret object of desire for Denis Cooverman (Rust), outstanding student and out-and-out dork.

Egged on by his sparky best friend Rich (Carpenter), Denis admits his love for Beth during his address to the school’s graduation day ceremony. The result is a schools-out night of adventure that sees Denis and Rich’s world colliding with that of Beth, her sidekicks Cammy (London) and Treece (Storm) and her jock boyfriend Kevin (Roberts).

Unfortunately, the story skeleton is fleshed out by Columbus - making his first film as a director since 2005’s Rent - with an awkward mix of tame sex gags, broad slapstick and wistful interludes.

The raunch - mostly cute references to boners and condoms - is mild enough to allow for a PG-13 rating in the US and this can make the film feel at times like a cleaned up, parent-approved version of American Pie.

The slapstick - much of it involving Denis and Rich’s battles with Kevin and his henchmen - is of the same brutal variety that Columbus deployed in his Home Alone films, only here the director’s timing seems to be off.

The wistful interludes find Beth and Denis revealing to each other what lies beneath their high school stereotype personas. Though there are a couple of affecting moments, the sequences often feel as if they have been inserted simply for a change of pace.

A forced subplot concerning Rich’s sexuality gives the story a token contemporary angle but for the most part Beth Cooper has a curiously cartoonish, eighties feel to it, as if Columbus was trying to recapture the tone of some of his early movies (such as Gremlins or Adventures in Babysitting).  

Panettiere is hardly tested in her first widely-distributed starring feature since Heroes hit big, though she gets a couple of chances to reveal Beth’s insecure side. She’ll need to prove herself in something more challenging if she wants to develop a big-screen career.

Rust pushes too hard to make Denis’ nerdiness constantly evident while Carpenter has a few appealing moments.

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Production companies
Fox Atomic
1492 Pictures

Worldwide distribution
20th Century Fox

Chris Columbus
Mark Radcliffe
Michael Barnathan

Larry Doyle

Paul Abraham

Production design
Howard Cummings

Peter Honess

Christophe Beck

Main cast
Hayden Panettiere
Paul Rust
Jack T Carpenter
Lauren London
Lauren Storm
Shawn Roberts