Dir: Melanie Mayron. Germany-US. 2002. 90mins.
As high-school satires go - and more than a few of them have come and gone over the past few years - German-backed US comedy Slap Her' She's French takes an amusing enough poke at the mores of modern teens but doesn't come close to the kind of sharp wit evinced by such straight A examples of the genre as Clueless and Election. With little in the way of star power to rely on, new US distributor Premiere, which makes its debut with the film, will have to work hard to justify Slap Her's wide (and twice delayed) US release on Sept 20. In the international market, independent distributors that have acquired the project from sales company Intermedia might be able to make something out of the title and culture-clash theme, though results from Germany - where the film managed a $1.1m gross last February - do not bode especially well for theatrical performances in other territories.
The script, by Robert Lee King (who directed Sundance entry Psycho Beach Party) and first-timer Lamar Damon, establishes a promising set-up by mixing the familiar high-school milieu with an All About Eve scenario. Starla Grady (McGregor, best known from MTV's Live Through This) is the most popular girl at her Texas high school, the head cheerleader with a quarterback boyfriend and a track record of beauty pageant victories. When a French exchange student comes to stay with the Gradys, Starla at first takes the timid, bespectacled Genevieve LePlouff (Perabo, from Coyote Ugly) under her wing. But before long the Gallic ugly duckling starts changing into a sexy femme fatale and Starla's perfect world begins to crumble around her.
From the start (and indeed from the title), it's clear that Slap Her' She's French is not going to shy away from easy, broad comedy. Through a couple of gaudy, Texas-style set pieces, Starla is painted as the typical empty-headed but ambitious cheerleader and her friends and family (with the exception of a brainy younger brother) as the usual crass buffoons. Genevieve is not quite so stereotypical - she doesn't smoke, for one thing, and there are none of the usual personal hygiene gags - but she does come equipped with a beret and thick accent.
As the story unfolds, there's a heavy reliance on familiar-seeming classroom bitchiness and sexual innuendo - the plot's turning point comes when Genevieve tricks Starla into making a raunchy proposition to her teacher (played by comedy veteran McKean) during a French - ahem - oral exam. The story does eventually get around to a moral, and to a romantic denouement involving Starla's down-to-earth schoolmate Ed (Ford, from Gosford Park), but both feel like afterthoughts.
To their credit, the cast and director Melanie Mayron (who directed 1995 teen comedy The Babysitter's Club) work hard to make the most of the film's comic appeal. McGregor is particularly energetic in her role and Mayron - who only came on board when original director Evan Dunsky left the project a week into shooting - gives the film a bright, bouncy feel that keeps things pleasantly watchable. What's missing, perhaps, is the kind of experience and comic timing that might have turned Slap Her' She's French into more than just a mildly entertaining romp.
Prod cos: Constantin Film, Bandeira Entertainment, Key Entertainment, IMF 2
US dist: Premiere Marketing & Distribution Group
Int'l sales: Intermedia Films
Prods: Beau Flynn, Jonathan King, Matthias Emcke
Exec prods: Bernd Eichinger, Thomas Augsberger, Stefan Simchowitz, Matthias Deyle, Volker Schauz
Scr: Lamar Damon, Robert Lee King
Cinematography: Charles Minsky
Prod des: Anne Stuhler, Roswell Hamrick
Ed: Marshall Harvey
Music: David Michael Frank
Main cast: Piper Perabo, Jane McGregor, Trent Ford, Michael McKean, Julie White